PRINT May 1985


The Hypocrisy of Justice in the Belle Epoque

Let me say right off that I could not put this book down—not so much for Benjamin Martin’s analysis of the hypocrisy of the social scene of the Third Republic as for his fascinating account of the three major scandals of the period. One of these, the Steinheil Affair, reads like a treatment for a Belle Epoque soap opera. Here are the facts.

At 21, Meg Japy, beautiful, sensual, etc., married a man twenty years her elder, an artist of vast ordinariness but who had made his modest way “content that each year since 1870 the official state exhibition had selected one of his paintings for hanging.” Meg soon sought bliss and reward for her youth with others—with many others, and with many of great note. With Félix Faure, for example, president of the Republic, who was responsible for commissioning Meg’s husband to execute a huge tableau for the state, for which the artist was paid “thirty thousand francs and created a knight of the Legion of Honor.” Others of Meg’s lovers were just as interested in Monsieur Steinheil’s artistic talent and sat for their portraits, thereby enriching the couples fortunes.

I skip some juicy events to come to the case itself. Meg falls in love with one of her admirers, a wealthy widower. He’s mad for her too, but won’t marry her even if she divorces her husband, for, as a divorced woman, Meg would bring dishonor ’’to the memory of his first wife."

On Sunday, May 31, 1908, Meg’s valet finds her tied hand and foot to her bed. Her husband and her mother are found dead, strangled, in the next rooms. Meg accuses a band of robbers. The police investigate. The trail to the robbers and to others Meg later accuses soon peters out. And eventually, Meg herself is arrested and brought to trial—one which captivated the press and the public. The dirty sheets paraded during the trial would have needed five washes just to make them look like ordinary soiled material. But I leave it to the pleasure of the reader to enjoy all the various launderings conducted during the trial and its aftermath. The two other cases are as, if not more, interesting.

Frederic Tuten


Benjamin F. Martin, The Hypocrisy of Justice in the Belle Epoque (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press; 1984), 251 pages, 12 black and white illustrations.