The Story Of Ravachol And The Anarchist Bomb-Chuckers Of 19th Century Paris  

Melissa Sartore
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Excess, commerce, and innovation ruled Paris in the late 19th century. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the country struggled for political stability before establishing the Third Republic in 1871. It was a time of radical Parisian politics, and the rise of a militant working class left in the 19th century is evidenced in tales of historical anarchists.

During the 1870s, Paris was bustling with beauty, extravagance, and debauchery, as the elite celebrated progress while being increasingly disconnected from the struggles of the worker. France was divided among the aristocracy, immigrants, and newly rich, and Paris became the wealthiest and poorest city in the country. These conditions created a pressure cooker of political violence between wealthy and poor, which led to the establishment of the Paris Commune, and the formation of a revolutionary government in 1871.  

The Commune lasted two months, but the anarchist movement, and radical anarchists like Ravachol, were born out of its ashes. Fiery radicals with hard line political beliefs who were disilusoined when the commune fell apart as the French army advanced, anarchists were embittered and cynical. Convinced violence was the only measure of recourse in a seemingly totalitarian society, and inspired by examples set by Russian anarchists, young radicals became a spree of 19th century anarchist bombings, which was ignited by a disaffected man turned radical left martyr, Ravachol.

Anarchism Took Hold With French Workers Thanks To Extreme Class Divide
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Photo: Le Petit Journal/Public Domain

The French Revolution of the late 18th century saw the rise of the democratic ideals under the National Assembly, the warping of those notions during the Reign of Terror, and led to an Emperor named Napoleon. The 19th century was characterized by a return to monarchy, a second attempt at a republic, yet another empire under Napoleon III, and finally, the establishment of the Third Republic, in 1871.

As the economic divide in France grew, the poorest citizens turned to whatever forms of employment they could to survive. From the perspective of the wealthy, the poor were lazy and avoided real work. From the point of view of the lower classes, the wealthy and the State oppressed them, took away their opportunities, and forced them to steal, lie, and fight on the margins of society. Anarchism offered a path of resistance to and escape from this dreary existence by promising a government without oppression and a society in which each person would be equally free to pursue personal goals as the next. 

Struggling To Find Work, Ravachol Resorted To Grave Robbing And Counterfeiting
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Photo: Alphonse Bertillon/Public Domain

Francois-Claudius Ravachol experienced first-hand the type of disparity and oppression anarchists believed the State imposed upon the poor and working classes. Born in 1859 in Saint-Chamond, in central France, he and his family were abandoned by his Dutch father when he was a young boy. Poor and ashamed of his ragged clothes and shabby appearance, Ravachol grew up Catholic, worked odd jobs, and, with increasingly long terms of unemployment, turned to anarchism for solace. He played music, sold alcohol on the black market, robbed graves, and got into counterfeiting to survive. 

He Murdered A Hermit In 1891 Out Of Desperation And It Came Back To Haunt Him
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Photo:  Le Progrès illustré/CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1891, at the age of 32, Ravachol was supposedly arrested for the murder of an old hermit in Montbrison, a town not far from his own. He allegedly committed the crime to steal a small fortune the hermit hoarded in his residence, equivalent in 1891 to £600, or £69,957.30 in 2016 ($90,636.68), all of which was amassed begging for alms. Ravachol escape police custody as he was being transported in a wagon, and fled to Paris. This crime became a focus of his trail in the wake of his bombings. 

It's Possible His Early Alleged Crimes Were Pinned On Him By The Court And Crime Papers
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Photo: Alphonse Bertillon/Public Domain

Ravachol was tried twice in 1892, and the court really wanted to make an example of him. To this end, he was accused of all manner of crimes that had nothing to do with his political activity. For instance, he was accused of robbing the grave of a famous countess, and of the murder of a wealthy hermit. As Luc Sante mentions in his book The Other Paris, a detailed study of the history of the Parisian underclass, it's unlikely Ravachol had anything to do with either crime. 

Wikipedia states Ravachol admited to the hermit murder and denied all other allegations during his trial. A biography on Marxists.org by historian Mitch Abidor corroborates this, stating Ravachol did in fact kill the famous hermit and steal his money. However, it makes no mention of his admitting it during is trial. 

John M. Merriman's account of French anarchist anti-state violence, The Dynamite Club, goes into detail on Ravachol's trials. As per Merriman, Ravachol admitted to murdering the old hermit, and suggested he'd murdered a number of other people as well. Merriman quotes Ravachol as saying "See this hand? It has killed as many bourgeoisie as it had fingers." Whether or not he meant that literally or to strike fear into the heart of the anti-anarchist status quo, is unclear. 

While it's possible Ravachol robbed graves and murdered a wealthy hermit, it's also possible Ravachol's contemporary biography is at least in part a product of disparaging narratives created by his enemies during a major press blitz designed to make the state look like a benevolent father and Ravachol a petulant child.