Littell's Living Age/Volume 145/Issue 1872/The Regicides of this Century

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Littell's Living Age
Volume 145, Issue 1872 : The Regicides of this Century
Originally published in the Cornhill Magazine.

Kings and emperors have been so many since the world began to form itself into states, and they have naturally had so many enemies, that one is inclined to marvel that so few of them should have perished by assassination. There have always been occasions of which a determined man could approach the person of the best-guarded monarch; and so the fact that sovereigns are generally well protected has little to do with their comparative immunity. But it is noticeable that attempts against rulers are usually made when society is in a perturbed state, and the popular respect for supreme authority has got weakened. Thus feeble-handed or well-meaning potentates who sought the good of their subjects, have been more exposed to criminal assaults than downright tyrants; and it is very seldom that the murderer of one of them has in any way benefited the popular cause. It may be suspected that most regicides have been madmen; on no other supposition can one explain the habitual short-sightedness of their calculations. Louis Philippe, of France, had his life attempted nineteen times. He was a good-natured, constitutional king, who had no power to harm a soul even had he wished to do so, which he did not; and he had a large family of grown-up sons, who were all popular, so that if he had been killed, the sceptre would have passed into younger and stronger hands than his at once. There was no sense in endeavoring to take the life of such a man. His assailants must unquestionably have been persons of weak or crooked intellect; and one may say the same of Hœdel, Nobiling, and Passanante, who within the last two years lifted up their hands against the emperor of Germany and the king of Italy. The death of William I. could have done the Socialists no sort of good, and that of Humhert I. would not have advanced the cause either of republicanism or of clericalism in Italy. The case is somewhat different in regard to Alexander II. of Russia and Alphonso of Spain, who stand in much the same position as Napoleon III. did in France. The head of the Bonaparte dynasty was looked upon as the incarnation of a political system. If he had been killed by the Orsini bombs in 1858, the empire would have collapsed with him; and so, if Alphonso were to fall hefore having an heir of age to succeed him, his kingdom would become a prey to all the adventurers who have something to expect from civil war. As to the czar, the Nihilists are probably wrong in supposing that there would be any vital change in the form of government if the crown were to change hands but there is room for doubt on the subject, so, if they be mad, there is at least a method in their criminal folly.

The first year of the nineteenth century was marked by an attempt on the life of General Bonaparte, who was then first consul. Two Italians, named Arena and Gerachi, sought to kill him on December 24, 1800, with an infernal machine, as he was returning to Paris from St. Cloud. This is the first time we hear of infernal machines. Arena and his comrade had constructed theirs by placing a box charged with explosive materials on either side of the road, and connecting the two boxes by means of a wire, which, when touched by the horses of the first consul’s carrriage, was to pull the triggers of two pistols loaded with tinder, and thereby set fire to the explosible stuff. The blow-up occurred as had been expected, and one of the postilions was wounded; but Bonaparte himself escaped without a scratch. His life was twice tried after that, in February, 1804, by George Cadoudal and some other Bretons, who threw some grenades under his carriage as he was leaving the Cour du Carrousel in the Tuileries; and on October 23, 1809, by a student named Staaps, who endeavored to stab him in the garden of the emperor of Austria’s palace at Schœenbrunn. There were many other conspiracies against the emperor’s days, but they were all discovered by the police, and their authors sent to the scaffold or the galleys. Napoleon I. was too much a fatalist to care for assassins, and it is said that even after the attempt of Cadoudal, when he had a very narrow escape, he remained quite unmoved, remarking that he had his appointed work to do, and should not fall till he had done. Considering that Napoleon was an autocrat of the hardest type, and that as a conqueror he had humiliated almost every nation on the Continent, it is not surprising that he should have had a large number of desperate foes; but it is noticeable that the chief attempts on his life were made at a time when his throne was not yet securely established. So long as he was regarded as the master of the world, the awe which he inspired was universal, and murderers seem to have been afraid to strike him.

It would be difficult to explain why assassins almost always fail in their attacks upon rulers. If, as Scott says, "a sinful heart makes feeble hand," we have a reason; but it is not the less remarkable that infernal machines, pistols aimed almost point-blank, and poignards wielded by the hands of men who do not seem to be poltroons, should so generally miss their marks. The conspirators who assassinated the emperor Paul of Russia on March 11, 1801, went to work in a way that precluded the possibility of failure. They surprised him in his bedroom at night and strangled him with a towel. The high rank of the conspirators, the number of them, and the determination with which they were animated, gave the unhappy czar no chance. A sentinel who endeavored to raise the alarm was overcome and disarmed; another who was on guard outside the czar’s room was killed; a page who stood in the way was hurled over some balusters. The murderers acted like men who felt that they were bound to succeed or to die; and they were nerved by the consciousness that the czar’s heir—the future Alexander 1.—was at heart with them, so that if they succeeded they would not be punished. Besides, Paul II. was a monomaniac who had no friends. The people despised and hated him; the army had no respect for him; and, to make matters worse, the czar’s overt admiration for France and General Bonaparte was regarded as politically detrimental to the interests of Russia by the boyards, who favored the English alliance. The Russians themselves pretend that the English ambassador had knowledge of the plot against Paul’s life, and tacitly abetted it. However this may be, the assassination of the unfortunate czar cannot be looked upon as an ordinary case of regicide, it was rather a political execution decreed by a Vehmgericht, which numbered scores of the leading nobles of the empire.

From 1809, when Napoleon was assaulted at Schœnbrunn, until 1832, when the life of the emperor Ferdinand of Austria was attempted at Baden, the ruling potentates of this earth lived unmolested. In the mean time, however, the Duke de Berry, eldest son of the Count d’Artois, heir-apparent to the French throne, had been assassinated on the steps of the opera-house by the republican fanatic Louvel (who plunged a knife between his shoulders), and this murder is believed by some historians to have had a fatal effect in shaking the Bourbon dynasty. It is doubtful, however, whether, had the prince lived until 1830, he could have helped to avert the revolution which took place in that year. He was a kindly-disposed prince, but frivolous and headstrong, and it is not likely that he would have opposed the issuing of those dictatorial "Ordinances’ against the liberty of the press which cost Charles X. his throne, and led to the accession of the Duke of Orleans, under the name of Louis Philippe.

Louis Philippe, as already said, had his life tried nineteen times. The most famous of the attempts against him was that made by the Corsican Fieschi, in 1835, by means of an infernal machine composed of a number of gun-barrels. This dastardly outrage, committed in broad daylight, while the king was holding a review, resulted in the death of Marshal Mortier and of twelve other persons. Fieschi is suspected to have been the mere hireling instrument of a republican faction; but he went stoically to the guillotine without having betrayed any of his accomplices. A private soldier named Alibaud, one Darmes, a mechanic, Meunier, a merchant’s clerk, Lecomte, a gamekeeper, and Henry, a crack-brained manufacturer, were amongst the other scoundrels who at different times essayed to kill the most peaceable monarch France ever had. Louis Philippe had grown so accustomed to be shot at, that he used to return to the Tuileries after each new attempt in a perfectly composed frame of mind and ready for his evening’s work. The anxiety of his family and his ministers were, however, of course very great, and towards the close of his reign he never showed himself in public without a formidable escort of soldiers. By way of taking exercise, he was reduced to walking in the parks of his two favorite chateaux at Neuilly, near Paris, and Eu, in the neighborhood of Dieppe. Nobody could get near him at either of these two places, and it is not surprising that he spent more of his time in them than in any of the other royal residences.

During Louis Philippe’s reign, and the four following years, attempts were made upon the life of Queen Victoria by Oxford in 1840, and by a workman named Francis in 1842; upon the king of Prussia, Frederick William IV., in 1844, and again in 1850; upon the present emperor of Germany, then military commander of Coblenz, in 1849; and upon Isabella, queen of Spain, in 1852. None of these attempts succeeded. Oxford, who shot at Queen Victoria while she was passing on Constitution Hill, was clearly a lunatic, and was consigned to Bedlam as such. He remained there about twenty-five years, and whilst in confinement showed himself invariably rational, working industriously as a carpenter, and expressing his deep remorse whenever he was questioned about what he termed his "wicked piece of foolery." Oxford is alive still, but he is residing out of England. Not so Francis, the carpenter, who assaulted the queen in 1842, and made a large wale on her face. This man died shortly after he had been lodged in St. Luke’s Bethlehem. He was unquestionably mad. Nevertheless, after his offence, Parliament passed a bill enacting that flogging should be inflicted in future upon any one seeking to inflict bodily harm upon the queen, or to threaten her. It was by virtue of this act that the young fool O’Connor, who levelled a pistol at the queen in 1869, was sentenced to be imprisoned for a year, and to receive twenty strokes with a birch. The queen kindly remitted the whole punishment, and caused the boy to be supplied with funds that he might emigrate to Australia. But within less than a year after he had been shipped off to Southampton, O’Connor returned to England, and was found prowling within the precincts of Buckingham Palace at night, evidently with evil intent. This time he was certified to be out of his mind, and was sent to an asylum, where he remained under treatment four years. He is believed now to be in New Zealand.

The persons of queens ought, by reason of their sex, to be more sacred than those of kings; yet Isabella of Spain, like her royal sister of England, had her life attempted twice. In 1852, while she was attending mass in the Cathedral of Atrocha, at Madrid, a man called Martin Marinos endeavored to stab her, and would have succeeded, but for the interposition of an officer, who, rushing forward, received the blow on his arm. So violently had the blow been dealt, that the stiletto completely transfixed the officer’s biceps muscles, and could with difficulty be extracted. The queen, when she saw the blood flow, swooned; but the officer, with true Castilian gallantry, borrowed a cloak to hide his wound, and, though faint with pain, claimed the honor of leading her Majesty back to her carriage. Isabella, before parting from him, made him a knight of her order of "Isabella the Catholic," and appointed him to be one of her aides-de camp. Four years after this, in May 1856, the queen of Spain was shot at while driving through the streets of Madrid. A peculiarity about this attempt was that the bullet intended for the queen passed clean through the two windows of her carriage, shattered the plate-glass front of an engraver’s shop, and pierced a portrait of her Majesty that was displayed for sale in the window. The portrait was purchased by the queen for 40l., and, magnificently framed in gold, was presented by her as a thank-offering to the chapel of the Convent of Maria de las Misericordias.

From Spain we may return to France, where Napoleon III. was reigning. It was in 1852 that this sovereign’s life was tried for the first time; and another attempt was made upon it by a radical shoemaker in 1853. This year—1853—was prolific in regicidal outrages, for a traitor called Libenyi tried in February to murder the emperor Francis Joseph at Vienna, whilst in March a soldier sought to dispose of the reigning duke of Parma, Charles III. Three years passed now without any more crimes of this sort; but in 1856 Napoleon III. was twice put in peril of his life, both his aggressors (Pianori and Bellamare) being Italians. It is said that after the attempt of Bellamare the emperor took to wearing a shirt of mail under his linen. It was not, however, until after the fearful enterprise of Orsini, on January 14, 1858, that, he got to be so seriously unnerved as to live in constant dread of assassination. Count Felice Orsini was not a mere vulgar fanatic, but a gentleman by birth, education, and fortune. An ardent patriot, and a partisan of the unification of Italy, his grudge against Napoleon III. was that the latter, when a political refugee in Italy, had joined a Freemasonic lodge, and sworn certain oaths which, by-and-by, as emperor, he had neglected to fulfil. Principally as regards Rome, Orsini was furious at seeing the temporal power of the pope maintained by a French garrison of eighteen thousand men; and two years before attempting Napoleon’s life he wrote anonymously to warn him that the Carbonaro lodges had decreed his death, and that the sentence would infallibly be carried out if the Imperial policy towards Italy were not altered. Had Count Orsini’s accomplices—Pierri, Rudio, and Gomez—been men of his mettle and determination, the attempt against Napoleon on the night of January 14, 1858, must have been crowned with success; but they were poor, ignorant cravens, who did their work for pay, not from conviction, and their hearts failed them at the critical moment. Each of them had been provided with two explosible shells, which were to be thrown under the emperor’s carriage as it drove up to the Opera. Orsini threw his two shells, and Pierri one, but the other two men ran off in a fright when they heard the first explosion. The damage done by the shells was ghastly. Five people were killed outright, and nine wounded; all the soldiers of the mounted escort were bruised or scratched; the emperor’s coachman fell off his box stunned on to the carcase of one of his horses, who lay dead; and one of the footmen was blown twenty yards off, with his skull battered in. Meanwhile hundreds of panes of glass in the street had been smashed, all the gas-lamps were extinguished, and in the darkness there resounded an appalling tumult of plunging horses and shrieking women. Lanterns and torches had to be brought out of the opera, and then it was seen that the Imperial coach was a complete wreck. How the emperor and empress managed to escape, with not so much as a singed hair or a cut finger, is nothing short of marvellous. Apparently not daunted in the least by what had happened, the empress said to the emperor, "We must go into the house to show them we are not afraid," and a few minutes later the entry of the Imperial couple into their box became the signal for a magnificent ovation, all the spectators rising en masse and cheering to the echo.

Nevertheless, from this time Napoleon III. was an altered man. In the following year he undertook the war against Austria, for the liberation of Italy, and ever afterwards he went in fear of his life. Not a coward’s fear, for he was a thoroughly brave man, but a fear which the French call crainte raisonnée. He expected to be murdered, and took the minutest precautions to ensure that the government should be carried on by a strong regency in case of his demise. He never went out without leaving directions as to where the latest copy of his will was to be found; and at times, when he was in low spirits, he used to say that he had dreamed he should be assassinated within such and such a time. During the remainder of his reign, all Italians visiting France were required to exhibit passports; and if not persons of undoubted respectability, were closely watched till an excuse was found for expelling them from the country. In despite of these precautions, Napoleon’s life was again attempted, by an Italian, in 1863; whilst in 1866 three other intriguers of Orsini’s interesting country—Greco, Trabuco, and Imperatore—entered into a murderous plot against his life, which was happily nipped in the bud by the police. There is said to have been another and more mysterious attempt against the emperor, of which the public heard nothing, except by rumor. A gamekeeper, of the forest of Compiègne, shot at his Majesty while the latter was engaged in a pheasant battue; but one of the equerries in attendance on Napoleon discharged both the barrels of his breach-loader into the head of the murderer, and killed him on the spot. So the story runs; but whether it be a true one or not, will probably never be known till some of the secret memoirs of the Imperial era come to light.

During Napoleon III.’s reign there were attempts against King William of Prussia, in 1861, and against the viceroy of Egypt, in 1869; whilst in 1865 Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States, was murdered in the theatre of Washington, as he was attending a performance of "Our American Cousin." This calamitous event was followed by what some consider as the judicial murder of the emperor Maximilian, at Queretaro, in 1867, and by the assassination of Prince Michael of Servia, at Belgrade, in 1868. In the mean time the emperor Alexander II. of Russia had been twice exposed to criminal enterprises—once in St. Petersburg, when he was shot at by a man named Korakasow, and the second time in the Bois de Boulogne of Paris, when he narrowly missed extinction at the hands of Berezowski, a young Polish refugee. But these attempts against the czar are so closely interwoven with events of the present day that they must be mentioned in fuller detail.

It was to a peasant named Kommissarow that the czar was believed to have owed his safety when Korakasow fired at him in 1866, but some saw that Kommissarow fainted with emotion on hearing the shot, and that it was a woman who first raised the cry that he had stepped forward and arrested the assassin’s arm. Anyhow the lucky peasant was loaded with honors and presents. The czar gave him the title of baron, a palace, an income; and would doubtless have kept him in lasting favor had not this alleged preserver turned out to be a brute addicted to drink, so that he had to be disposed of at length by being sent as lieutenant into a regiment campaigning in the Caucasus, where he is said to have died soon afterwards. As for Korakasow, he was sent to Siberia, and may be working in the mines there to this day for aught that is known to the contrary. The czar was rather surprised than upset by this man’s attempt on his life, for Nihilism had not yet begun to ferment in the land, and Korakasow was looked upon as an isolated madman; but in the following year Berezowski’s attempt gave Alexander II. infinite pain. The emperors of Russia and France were returning together from a review in the Bois de Boulogne when Berezowski—a lad of twenty—stepped forward and discharged both barrels of a pistol at once at their barouche. The pistol exploded and wounded the assassin, but it was not this that saved the life of the czar. M. Rambaud, an equerry who was riding beside the carriage, happened to see the pistol aimed, and spurred his horse forward just in time to intercept the bullets; indeed, the blood of the wounded charger was sprinkled over the czarewitch, and made Napoleon III. imagine for a moment that this young prince had been wounded.

It turned out when Berezowski was put upon his trial, that his father and a brother had been exiled to Siberia for participation in the Polish rebellion of 1863, and this fact saved him from the guillotine. The jury at the Seine assizes tempered their verdict of "guilty" with the finding of "extenuating circumstances," and the prisoner was sentenced to he transported to New Caledonia. Whether he is there now is not exactly known to the public, for one of the first acts of the government of national defence in 1870 was to grant him a pardon; and though this act of grace was subsequently cancelled by M. Thiers, some say that Berezowski had already been liberated when the order for detaining him arrived. Others say that Berezowski escaped from Noumea in 1871; others again allege that he died in 1872. Altogether a mystery hangs over the fate of this young man, whom the French government profess to be still holding in durance.

Berezowski’s crime did his fellow-countrymen, the Poles, an immense deal of mischief. The iron grasp of their Russian rulers was tightened upon them from that time, and various merciful concessions which had been wrung from the czar’s pity for their nation were withdrawn. Probably it will transpire in time that the recent Nihilist outrages have had an equally pernicious effect in checking the liberal progress of Russian institutions. The attempt of Solowiew in 1879, the explosion on the Moscow railway, and the attempted blowing up of the Winter Palace in the present year, are crimes of a sort which either drive an autocrat mad with panic or else harden him. 1n any case they cannot be favorable to the cause of the misguided factions who are responsible for them. Russia can, no more than any other State, civilize itself by murder.

A passing allusion has been made to the attempts of Nobiling and Hœdel on the emperor of Germany; to that of Passanante on King Humbert; and to those of Moncasi and Ottero on the king of Spain. It will be remembered that in 1872 a cowardly endeavor was made to blow up the carriage that contained King Alphonso’s predecessor, King Amadeo, and the latter’s gentle queen, who was at the time in very weak health, and who died soon afterwards. Amadeo abdicated shortly after this occurrence, and left the unfortunate kingdom, which he had so honestly essayed to govern, to be ruled by the present sovereign, who, at the time of his accession, was a boy of eighteen. Alphonso, though young, has exhibited all the nerve and temper of middle age in facing the perils by which he is—and must continue for a long time to be—surrounded, he is quite conscious of standing in a most critical position; but he has faith in his star, and it must be hoped, for the credit of humanity, that he will be allowed to finish in peace and honor, and in the full ripeness of age, a reign which he began well, and which he is carrying on with courage.

One must add two presidents of South American republics to the list of rulers who have recently fallen victims to political zealotry. Don Gabriel Garcia Morenos, president of Ecuador, was assassinated in 1875; and Don B. Gill, president of Paraguay, perished in 1877 under similar circumstances. Of the attempts at assassination perpetrated in the Spanish republics of America—in Mexico, Chili, Peru, and elsewhere—it would be invidious to speak. They are too numerous. The newspapers bring us accounts of new ones by almost every mail; and one can only marvel that any sensible man should be found to accept the presidential functions in these extraordinary countries, where a ruler seems to be looked upon as a living target at whom aspirant politicians are privileged to shoot without running the risk of being disgraced as murderers if they succeed in hitting him.