Archive for October 29th, 2012

1812: Claude-Francois de Malet and his conspirators

Add comment October 29th, 2012 Headsman

Two centuries ago today,* the author of one of the weirdest attempted coups in history was shot with his co-conspirators.

Picture Valkyrie in Napoleonic Europe.

Claude-Francois de Malet (English Wikipedia entry | French) had spent the years of his confinement for republican sensibilities painstakingly readying bogus orders and decrees for the eventual rollout of the most audacious putsch you’d ever want to putsch.

While Bonaparte was off on campaign trashing Russia, Malet broke out of his sanitarium and went to work.

Donning a general’s uniform, Malet on Oct. 23, 1812 presented a forged announcement of the Emperor’s recent demise … and started issuing orders. He bluffed the release of imprisoned allies, and got a legitimate general to order the arrest of Napoleon’s most prominent deputies in Paris. (It’s a good job that general obeyed Malet, because when one officer asked to kindly see the arrest warrant Malet was using on him, Malet responded by shooting him in the face.)

For a few hours that morning the Malet conspirators almost put themselves in control, almost normalized their sudden rearrangement of authority with its reassuringly familiar official paperwork. Later, when interrogated for the identities of his accomplices, Malet would retort, “You, yourself, Sir, and all of France — if I had succeeded!”

But the attempted coup which aimed so high ultimately made for little but tantalizing counterfactual history. Officers with clearer heads soon realized that they had received communiques from the Emperor dated after his purported October 7 death; one of those officers arrested Malet.

A tribunal was constituted later that same date. It had little difficulty condemning 14 (French link) during the small hours of the morning on Oct. 29. They were shot later that same day (at least, most of them were; there are oddly conflicting accounts on this point). This public-domain French text preserves a first-person narration of the scene, in which Malet himself — usurping authority to the very last — commands the firing platoon that’s lined up to shoot his comrades.

120 bullets riddled these unfortunates, who fell all except Malet. He stood on his hands and knees and raised his hands to his chest as he was only wounded, and retreated to the wall on which he leaned:

“And me, my friends!” cried he, “You forgot me!”

(One of the executed fellow-officers was Gen. Victor Lahorie. Lahorie’s lover was Sophie Trebuchet, and his lover’s son, Victor Hugo, was about to catapult himself to literary fame.)

While the Malet plot failed on its own terms, it got quite a lot farther than it had any right to expect — and this fact rightly alarmed the Corsican.

“Bad News From France”, by Vasily Vereshchagin, depicts a retreating Napoleon — bunking in an Orthodox church — finding out about Malet.

Was his position that precarious? And why, if some officers genuinely believed him dead, did nobody hail as emperor his infant son and designated heir?

Napoleon had already begun his catastrophic retreat from Russia when he got word of Malet’s attempted coup d’etat; the struggling Grande Armee was dwindling daily under the battering of cold, desertion, and Russian snipers. Now this?

Upon discovering his late narrow escape from a homefront conspiracy, Napoleon left his miserable troops under the command of Murat* and raced ahead of them back to Paris to secure his own position.

This new confluence of domestic vulnerability and foreign defeat marks the beginning of the end for Napoleon. Europe ganged up on the weakened French, and less than 18 months after Malet faced his executioners, France’s own generals forced Napoleon to abdicate.

* Murat soon ditched the army himself to try to preserve himself as King of Naples. (That didn’t end well.) The once-gigantic army’s remnants finally straggled home under the third-string leadership of Eugene de Beauharnais — the capable son of Josephine’s guillotined first husband.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Mass Executions,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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