The 19th Century Terrorist Who Left Paris Burning

The 19th Century Terrorist Who Left Paris Burning

Jeanette Lamb - February 9, 2017

The French anarchist Émile Henry was just twenty-one years old when he rocked the streets of Paris for the last time before being captured and finally executed – guillotine style. On a wintry February day in 1894, before leaving his tiny apartment, he accessorized his attire with a revolver, a poison-tipped blade, and a homemade bomb that he slipped comfortably into the pocket of his overcoat.

He wandered around the most upscale streets of Paris, going from cafe to cafe until he settled on waiting for an hour in the Gare Saint-Lazare area for enough people to arrive before setting light to the bomb inside Café Terminus. More than anything, he wanted the place to be bustling with possible victims.

The 19th Century Terrorist Who Left Paris Burning
Gare Saint-Lazare, circa 1890. Pompiers

Émile Henry was vehemently against the bourgeoisie class which he claimed was his primary target. He said during his trial that he wanted to kill as many of them as possible. Although in the end, the cafe bombing left only one dead and several wounded. What drove a young, bright man to act out his convictions and desire to destroy society? Henry’s personal life was sewn together from a hodgepodge of details. He was bright and by the age of 16 his education was funded by an academic scholarship; he was eventually accepted to a top-notch French university, but soon lost interest in pursuing that path. He lost most of his jobs – one of the last was lost after his boss found a translated Italian newspaper at his work desk called, “Long live theft, long live dynamite!” The 20-year-old had been reading about how to make nitroglycerin during his work shifts.

Émile Henry joined the anarchist movement as recently in 1891 when he was just 19. He had a passion for it and threw himself headlong into understanding its purpose. Any lack of hesitancy to absorb the radical vocation may hinge on familiarity; he was born to a revolutionist line of ancestors; his father and brother were both members of radical fringe groups. His brother, in particular, was an anarchist enthusiast.

The more Henry learned about the revolutionary cause, the more he embraced its ideology. He concluded that while coming of age, he and those around him had been educated to think the world was one way when in fact, it was another. Henry noted that he and his generation were taught that if one was bright, educated, and worked hard, the outcome was that doors offering a variety of opportunities would open. Likewise, he was taught that equality and justice were, above all, the basis upon which French society was established and should be revered. Yet none of this reflected what he witnessed happening in the world around him. To his horror, the opposite was true. He saw those who were getting ahead in life were the least honest and the least deserving.

It was always the more malevolent characters advancing the most, and with ease. Anyone with a sinister or subservient disposition willing to follow along on the trail of degradation and deceit would be rewarded. Factory owners disproportionately kept massive profits and underpaid their workers, politicians took bribes, police upheld the corrupt system; the injustice riled Henry. He devoted himself to bringing down the system. For a short time, Henry toyed with the socialist movement but found it did not appeal to him. He asserted, as an established order, that socialism was no better than the rotten society he was living in.

Henry’s dedication to the anarchist movement was clear. When he was eventually caught by the police, an arsenal of bomb-making material was discovered in his apartment. Without pause, Henry confessed to the bombing and added that Café Terminus was not his first act of terror. He added he was the mastermind behind several other bombings throughout Paris, including the Carmaux Mining Company, where a bomb exploded after police found it and were busily taking it apart. Henry’s contempt toward the bourgeoisie was fierce, but it alone was not the motive for the various bombings.

In 1893, fellow anarchist Auguste Vaillant was sentenced to be executed after bombing a police station. Vaillant was an editor of an anarchist journal. He grew up poor and believed he was trapped by a system that kept him impoverished; he was someone with whom Henry deeply shared his anarchist convictions. Vaillant and Henry both saw the police as thoroughly corrupt. Henry’s bombings were partly in reaction to Vaillant’s death sentence.

A week after Vaillant’s death sentence was carried out, Henry loaded his revolver with bullets that were rigged to cause the most damage possible, he armed himself with a poisoned knife and placed a homemade bomb made from tiny a tin kettle in the pocket of his overcoat. He made the long journey from the unimpressive Paris outskirts until arriving in the wealthy area concentrated around the Opera Garnier, which was his desired target. Henry discovered the building was too hard for him to enter, as it was heavily guarded. With that, Henry reconsidered his plans.

The 19th Century Terrorist Who Left Paris Burning
Painting of Henry’s capture. Wikipedia

He walked around the streets of Paris in search of a busy location where wealthy patrons were known to enjoy themselves. He tried Bignon, the Café de la Paix, and the American. None of them had big enough crowds. Finally, he ventured to the Terminus Café and waited an hour for more people to arrive. When they did, he tossed away his cigar. He took the bomb from his coat pocket, lit the fuse, and when he reached the café door, he threw it toward the orchestra that had been playing music for the duration of his stay. The bomb hit a lamp and exploded; it destroyed the café, shattering most if its mirrors and tables.

Henry’s plan after tossing the bomb was to buy a ticket at Saint-Lazare station and use the train to make his escape, but he was stopped almost immediately by a waiter. He took out a revolver and shot at the waiter and a hairdresser who also tried to stop him. By this time, Henry noticed a crowd had gathered. He decided to wait for the policeman now chasing him, and he was able to fire off three more shots. With that, the crowd attacked Émile Henry. By May of 1894, he became the third anarchist sentenced to execution by guillotine.