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The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in…

The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siecle Paris Ignited the Age of… (2009)

by John M. Merriman

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Maybe there is something to metempsychosis. The soul of Émile Henry seems to have turned up in Theodore Kaczynski, John Hinckley, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold – and will probably appear again, John Merriman’s The Dynamite Club is a surprisingly thorough biography of Henry (surprising because so much is known about his life). Merriman links Henry with the anarchist movement of the 20 years on either side of 1900, and Henry’s public statements and private contacts certainly connect him with anarchism and he claimed to be an anarchist; I think an equally good case could be made for Henry as the first in a series of sad cases like the men listed above – self-destructive losers, of above average intelligence, who blame their problems on “society” and strike out more or less randomly, getting their 15 minutes of fame through murder self-justified by vague political beliefs.

Henry was caught after throwing a bomb into the Café Terminus in Paris on February 12, 1894, killing one. Two years earlier he’d planted a bomb outside the offices of a French mining company, also in Paris; the suspicious package was taken to a police station, where it exploded and killed five police officers. In jail, Henry first refused to reveal any information about himself but gradually began to get more and more talkative, eventually bragging about his bomb and voluntarily confessing to the 1892 bombing as well. His defense statement at his trial was reminiscent of the “Unibomber Manifesto”, indicting society; he was guillotined on May 21st 1894.

Contemporary writers spent quite a bit of ink noting that Henry, unlike other anarchists, was bourgeois himself, and Merriman concurs; I think this is a little exaggerated. Henry’s father had been a mine foreman in Spain and something of a political radical (he had to flee to Spain after the communard repressions in 1871); after his father’s death, his mother ran a small auberge in a rural French town. Henry had done quite well in the equivalent of high school, but failed the oral part of the admission examination for the École Polytechnique – blaming a hostile examiner. About this time he developed an unfortunate passion for a friend’s wife, writing embarrassing love poems and obtaining a lock of her hair (he was wearing it in a locket when captured). Nevertheless, in 1889 he got an excellent job with his uncle, a civil engineer working in Venice – but unaccountably left and returned to France, working at series of marginal clerking positions for various employers. Thus he was bourgeois only by a considerable stretch of the term.

Henry did have a few anarchist contacts, but most of his knowledge of anarchism seems to have come from the newspapers. His radicalization may have been triggered by a widely publicized coal mine strike – perhaps remembering his father’s mining days and death from “brain fever” (Merriman speculates it was mercury poisoning) – and his first and most successful attempt at “propaganda by the deed” was the bomb at the Paris offices of the mining company. The police did consider him a possible suspect but didn’t think he could have planted the bomb in the brief time he was away from work; Henry fled to London anyway. The Café Terminus attack was ostensibly revenge for the execution of a worker who had detonated a small, nonlethal bomb in the Chamber of Deputies – this was the first time since the Terror when someone had been guillotined for a crime that didn’t involve murder. However, Henry’s target was not a government building or industrial site like previous anarchist attacks (including his own) but simply an upscale restaurant. Coupled with the supposed bourgeois status of the bomber, this created a major public stir – suddenly no one was safe from anarchist attacks.

Nothing like this really came to pass. There was a revenge attack for Henry – an Italian anarchist stabbed the President of the French Republic to death while he was riding in an open carriage in Lyon – but there was no more random bombing in public places. The French passed a series of extremely repressive laws, and most anarchists themselves felt Henry had gone too far. Henry’s supposed love interest, Élisa Gauthey, made a short career for herself talking to journalists, and Henry’s mother had a brief spurt of notoriety business in her auberge.

Merriman is pretty clearly more sympathetic to the anarchists than to the bourgeoisie, sometimes getting maudlin over the pathetic condition of the Parisian poor; to be fair, it was pretty pathetic but no worse than anywhere else in West. Besides, in a few short years many of the poor were to have their misery permanently relieved in the trenches. Merriman criticizes the cruelty of binding Henry’s hands painfully tight and shackling him with hobbles on his way to the guillotine, apparently not realizing this was standard operating procedure and is intended as kindness rather than cruelty – the idea is that if your wrists hurt and you have to concentrate hard on walking your mind will not be brooding on the fact that it’s about to be separated from the rest of you. If Merriman’s description of the execution is true, an actual cruelty was that there was a 20-second delay between getting Henry’s head in the lunette and dropping the blade, which, under the circumstances, is a long time to be staring into a basket; in moist post-Terror guillotining is was a point of pride to the executioner that the interested party contemplated his situation for the shortest possible time. Merriman’s not familiar with anarchist technology; we learn, for example, that Henry possessed an “8-caliber” revolver and that he once used “potassium chloride” when making bombs, and there’s the claim that dynamite is made by mixing nitroglycerine with black powder. In a particularly amusing error – although I suspect this is due to an overenthusiastic automated spell checker rather than Merriman – some London anarchists are described as belonging to “The Astronomy Club” rather than the actual anarchist organization “The Autonomy Club”. Oddly, there is an astronomy connection; the Royal Greenwich Observatory was the target of an 1894 anarchist bombing attempt, only three days after Henry’s attack on the Café Terminus, but the bomb blew up in the bomber’s hand and killed him (the supposed motive being the bourgeoisie “worship” of science). The incident inspired Conrad’s The Secret Agent, which turns out to have been Theodore Kaczinsky’s favorite book – to the extent that he sometimes used Conrad as an alias. I enjoy synchronicity.

Worth a read. I suppose I did become a little sympathetic with Mr. Henry – but if there was similar detail about the lives of his victims I would probably feel even more for them. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 21, 2017 |
John Merriman, professor of history at Yale and author of the classic undergraduate text A History of Modern Europe: From the Renaissance to the Present, has been called America's best living historian of France. Born and raised in Oregon, he has lived in France on and off much of his life and is skilled at bridging the cultural divide. In our current "age of terror" it is illuminating to remember that for about a 15-20 year period during the fin-de-siecle (end of the 19th century), Paris was gripped by a wave of Anarchist Dynamite bombers. The central story of this book is about one of those Dynamiters, Emile Henry, the first terrorist to bomb anonymous otherwise innocent civilians and, according to the subtitle, "ignite the modern age of terror."

The Dynamite Club is a small package (216pg, 8.5" book) but, like the subject of its title, packs a wallop amount of information. Using the creative non-fiction technique of writing history through telling the narrative story of a central hero (or anti-hero in this case), it is a biography of Emile and the bombing and its aftermath - and also the larger story of Anarchism in the 19th century. We learn about the underground world of Paris and London, teeming with hungry, unemployed and angry youth, the revolutionary intellectuals who inspired them and the state enforcement that emerged with them. Merriman not only dug deep into the archives, he traveled to the locations involved (some still in business), even retracing the steps of Emile Henry through the streets of Paris the day of his bombing, clocking the amount of time it took to verify his story (luckily traffic in Paris today is so bad, travel resembles the speed of 19th century horse and carriage).

This is a really fascinating and accessible introduction to the world of 19th century Anarchism - one of the defining characteristics of fin-de-siecle Europe. Merriman is a serious historian and I had trouble finding anything that appeared embellished, unfortunately so common with journalist-historians these days writing for a popular audience. Merriman teaches a course at Yale called France since 1871 (18hrs, 24 classes). It has been video recorded and is freely available online for anyone to watch. Merriman is a dynamic and fun teacher to watch. The first 12 or so classes are about France between 1871 and 1914 and it is a great introduction to everything fin-de-siecle. Lecture 8 in particular is called "Dynamite Club: The Anarchists", and was recorded while he was working on this book.

--Review by Stephen Balbach, via CoolReading (c) 2008 cc-by-nd ( )
1 vote Stbalbach | Feb 19, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0618555986, Hardcover)

The fascinating story of a long-forgotten "war on terror" that has much in common with our own

On a February evening in 1894, a young radical intellectual named Émile Henry drank two beers at an upscale Parisian restaurant, then left behind a bomb as a parting gift. This incident, which rocked the French capital, lies at the heart of The Dynamite Club, a mesmerizing account of Henry and his cohorts and the war they waged against the bourgeoisie—setting off bombs in public places, killing the president of France, and eventually assassinating President McKinley in 1901.

Paris in the belle époque was a place of leisure, elegance, and power. Newly electrified, the city’s wide boulevards were lined with posh department stores and outdoor cafés. But prosperity was limited to a few. Most lived in dire poverty, and workers and intellectuals found common cause in a political philosophy—anarchism—that embraced the overthrow of the state by any means necessary.

Yet in targeting civilians to achieve their ends, the dynamite bombers charted a new course. Seeking martyrdom, believing fervently in their goal, and provoking a massive government reaction that only increased their ranks, these "evildoers" became, in effect, the first terrorists in modern history.

Surprising and provocative, The Dynamite Club is a brilliantly researched account that illuminates a period of dramatic social and political change—and subtly asks us to reflect upon our own.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:48 -0400)

"On a February evening in 1894, a young radical intellectual named Emile Henry drank two beers at an upscale Parisian restaurant, then left behind a bomb as a parting gift. This incident, which rocked the French capital, lies at the heart of The Dynamite Club, a account of Henry and his cohorts and the war they waged against the bourgeoisie - setting off bombs in public places, killing the president of France, and eventually assassinating President McKinley in 1901." "The Dynamite Club is a account that illuminates a period of dramatic social and political change - and subtly asks us to reflect upon our own."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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