Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits

The Crime Spree that Gripped Belle Epoque Paris


By John Merriman

Read by Peter Ganim

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The thrilling story of the Bonnot Gang, a band of anarchist bank robbers whose crimes terrorized Belle Ã?oque Paris, and whose escapades reflected the fast-paced, dizzyingly modern, and increasingly violent period on the eve of World War I.

For six terrifying months in 1911-1912, the citizens of Paris were gripped by a violent crime streak. A group of bandits went on a rampage throughout the city and its suburbs, robbing banks and wealthy Parisians, killing anyone who got in their way, and always managing to stay one step ahead of the police. But Jules Bonnot and the Bonnot Gang weren’t just ordinary criminals; they were anarchists, motivated by the rampant inequality and poverty in Paris.

John Merriman tells this story through the eyes of two young, idealistic lovers: Victor Kibaltchiche (later the famed Russian revolutionary and writer Victor Serge) and Rirette Maîejean, who chronicled the Bonnot crime spree in the radical newspaper L’Anarchie. While wealthy Parisians frequented restaurants on the Champs-Ã?ysé, attended performances at the magnificent new opera house, and enjoyed the decadence of the so-called Belle Ã?oque, Victor, Rirette, and their friends occupied a vast sprawl of dank apartments, bleak canals, and smoky factories. Victor and Rirette rejected the violence of Bonnot and his cronies, but to the police it made no difference. Victor was imprisoned for years for his anarchist beliefs, Bonnot was hunted down and shot dead, and his fellow bandits were sentenced to death by guillotine or lifelong imprisonment.

Fast-paced and gripping, Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits is a tale of idealists and lost causes–and a vivid evocation of Paris in the dizzying years before the horrors of World War I were unleashed.



At 8:45 in the morning on December 21, 1911, in Paris, Ernest Caby, a thirty-two-year-old employee of the Société Générale wearing the uniform of the bank and a blue bicorn hat with a tricolor cocarde, stepped off the tramway at its stop at Carrefour Damrémont-Ordener in the eighteenth arrondissement beyond Montmartre. The stop stood about one hundred yards from the branch office of that bank at 146 rue Ordener at the corner of Cité Nollez. Over his left shoulder, Caby carried a cloth sack, and in his hand, another. This morning, it was filled with 5,266 francs in silver. In his left hand he carried 318,772 francs in titres (securities), some of which were negotiable. Inside his coat was an envelope containing twenty thousand francs in bank notes and five thousand francs in cash.

Passersby in the busy morning hour in a neighborhood of modest means gaped at a Delaunay-Belleville parked near the bank, some approaching the luxury automobile to have a closer look. Alfred Peemans, a bank official, walked out the door of the Société Générale to meet Caby as he approached the bank, and together they headed toward the bank. When they reached the corner of the Cité Nollez, near the front door of the bank, a man stepped out of the luxury car holding a revolver in his left hand. From just a few feet away, he shot Caby point-blank in the chest, and then shot him twice more. The courier collapsed at the base of a tree.

The automobile used in the robbery.

The holdup at the Société Générale, rue Ordener, Paris. The courier Ernest Caby is shot by one of the bandits.

Peemans was unharmed and ran into the bank, shouting, “They are attacking our courier!” Several bank employees followed Peemans out into the street in time to see the man fire a fourth shot, which lodged near Caby’s spine. The gunman then grabbed one of Caby’s bags; another man grabbed a second sack. Both men jumped back into the waiting car, leaving Caby lying in a pool of blood.

Two municipal policemen (gardiens de la paix) arrived from different directions and moved toward the automobile, but they were met by a barrage of shots fired from inside the Delaunay-Belleville as it sped off. A bus arrived, blocking the street at the corner of the rue du Cloys, and a tram was crossing the road, but the driver of the speeding automobile skillfully avoided both and turned onto rue Montcalm and then onto rue Vauvenargues and headed out of Paris via the porte de Clichy. No one managed to stop them before they made their escape.

News of the holdup and shooting at the Société Générale exploded in Paris. Although it was the first holdup in France using an automobile, it confirmed public worries about the use of automobiles in burglaries to elude the police. In this case the thieves were better armed and better equipped than the authorities. The police had very few automobiles at their disposal. Caby, who survived, was the only casualty, but the holdup was an embarrassment for the police.1

From his office on the Île de la Cité, Louis Lépine, who had been the prefect of police since 1893, moved quickly to coordinate the massive police operation intended to find the bandits. Born in Lyon in 1846 into a family of modest origin, Lépine had quickly given up law for administration, serving in Saint-Étienne as prefect of the Loire. The Prefecture of Police of Paris had been created in 1800 and charged “with all that concerns the police,” in the widest possible sense. Louis Lépine’s post was therefore an important position in the hierarchy of power in France. This position enabled him, as it had his predecessors, to intervene arbitrarily, forcefully, and sometimes secretly on the edge of illegality in the investigation of crimes, ordering arrests and searches as he pleased, dipping into an enormous drawer of secret funds that enabled him to pay off informers and police spies. Lépine knew how to manipulate the municipal council of Paris; he had staked his reputation on his ability to prevail in negotiations with anyone who might check his power. He imagined himself to be “the king of Paris,” or the commander “by divine right,” imposing military discipline on “his” agents, “his” brigades, and “his” administration. As he sat behind his large desk—with his mustache and short beard, invariably wearing a dark suit and tie, matched by a black top hat when he went out—Lépine had no idea who might have carried out the audacious attack on the courier who worked for Société Générale. But his attention soon turned to the possibility that anarchists were involved.

The next morning, in their small apartment in plebeian Belleville, Victor Kibaltchiche, the Brussels-born anarchist son of Russian émigrés, and his companion Rirette Maîtrejean, a fellow anarchist who had come to Paris from her village in central France, read in the newspapers about the dramatic, bloody theft and getaway. Victor immediately thought of someone who might have done it: a certain Jules Bonnot, whom Victor and Rirette had recently met in anarchist circles—“He is crazy enough to have done that!” Victor and Rirette read the descriptions of the perpetrators. For her part, Rirette doubted that a man whom eyewitnesses described as being small with a thin mustache could have been Bonnot. Victor disagreed. And another accomplice had been described as “seeming very young, not very big, wearing a martingale raincoat, a melon-shaped hat, binocles, and with a face of baby-like rose complexion.” Victor immediately recognized Raymond Callemin, once a close friend from his youth in Brussels. Eyewitness accounts led Victor to believe that another Belgian, a violent anarchist named Octave Garnier, was one of the four—or five—men whom passersby had seen in the car. Victor and Rirette realized that although they had had absolutely nothing to do with the holdup, completely disagreed with such violent acts, and had long since distanced themselves from this small faction of anarchists, this could be bad for them. They were already known to the authorities because of the anarchist paper they ran, L’Anarchie. The police had been on to them for years, waiting for an opportunity to silence them. And Victor and Rirette knew that if Callemin, Garnier, and Bonnot were behind the brazen holdup, there would be more violent attacks in Paris.2


Chapter 1


In the first decade of the twentieth century, foreign-language guidebooks saluted the sheer beauty of Paris. One touring book described Paris as “the beautiful city…, which for ages has been recognized as the chief capital of Europe.” Parisian newspapers celebrated the permanent spectacle of Baron Georges Haussmann’s grands boulevards, centers of conspicuous consumption that had been created when the city was remade in the 1850s and 1860s. The iron balconies along Paris’s boulevards symbolized the Second Industrial Revolution, a transformation characterized by steel, iron, and—increasingly—electricity.1 Guidebooks emphasized the boulevards and their grand cafés, not the city’s soaring Gothic churches. The Third French Republic (first proclaimed in 1870 and lasting until 1940) celebrated the city as a showcase of a “happy modernity.”2 This would be the capital of the wealthy—not the unlit, crowded streets of plebeian Paris, or the tiny apartments that impoverished people like Victor Kibaltchiche and Rirette Maîtrejean called home.

In 1910, the Catholic writer Charles Péguy exclaimed that “civilization has changed more in the past 30 years than it has since the time of Christ.”3 French society seemed to be speeding up, accelerating rapidly, if not spinning out of control—and nowhere was this more true than in Paris. Inventions such as the wireless telegraph, telephone, elevators, electric-powered amusement park rides, and then subways had become part of modern life, particularly city life.

A few decades after Haussmann’s boulevards changed the city, Paris was altered yet again: by 1900, three hundred fifty thousand electric lamps brought light to the city. It was at this time that the term Ville Lumière began to appear in tourist guides for Paris. The Grand Palais, the Petit Palais, the Gare d’Orsay, and the Pont Alexandre III were completed for the occasion when Paris celebrated… being Paris. In 1900, fifty million people went to see the Exposition Universelle, which saluted electric lighting with the Palais de l’Électricité. The first Métro line opened up for the occasion in July of that year, its cars carrying visitors along the Seine to the Exposition Universelle that celebrated France and its soaring capital. By 1913, six lines were in operation.4

Electricity turned hotels and department stores into what the great novelist Émile Zola aptly called the “cathedrals of modernity”—where advances in glass technology made possible dazzling window displays to attract clients who had money to spend.5

When we think today of the Paris in the early years of the twentieth century, great artistic, musical, architectural, and literary accomplishments first come to mind. Avant-garde artists embellished the reputation of Paris as the “capital of art.”6 Like their Impressionist predecessors, the Neo-Impressionists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac; the Post-Impressionists Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, and Paul Gauguin; and the Fauvistes Henri Matisse and André Derain reacted in their own ways against tradition, conformity, and “official” art. They came to Paris—and especially to Montmartre, the butte overlooking the capital, whose cabarets and cafés also “represented a new aesthetic,” as historian Roger Shattuck put it. The Cubism of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso reflected the sense of movement and even speed that modern Paris exuded.7

Avant-garde music thrived, too. Claude Debussy’s expressive piano pieces were so innovative that they were to music what the Impressionists had been to painting.8 The composer Maurice Ravel combined respect for traditional influences with innovative tempos reflecting the dynamism of the period. Erik Satie’s brilliant compositions and humor—including “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear”—also reflected the originality of French culture at the turn of the century.9

Art Nouveau emerged as an adventurous new style in Paris, as well as in Brussels and Barcelona. It flourished in architecture, graphic art, interior design, furniture, vases, and other household items, and it served as an imaginative response to the geometric, straight lines of the style represented by the grands boulevards. Yet Art Nouveau’s free-flowing lines and vegetable- and plant-like curves generated hostile responses from some who denigrated it as “noodle art.” Even Hector Guimard’s “dragonfly” entrances to the Métro, now iconic, at the time had strident critics.10

Artists and tourists weren’t the only ones who descended on the growing capital city, the population of which rose from 2,345,000 in 1896 to 2,763,000 ten years later. Paris was an endless beehive of activity. On an average day, 60,000 vehicles, 70,000 horses, and 400,000 brave pedestrians crossed the place de l’Opéra, in front of Charles Garnier’s magnificent gilded “wedding cake.” About one hundred fifty people were killed and twelve thousand hurt each year, taken out by horses, omnibuses (which moved at eight miles an hour), trams (ten miles an hour), and, then, automobiles.11

Automobiles were without question one of the symbols of the new age. The first automobile appeared on the roads of France in 1893. The country produced 1,850 automobiles in 1896, 24,000 in 1898, 34,000 in 1909, and 43,000 in 1913. The first regular autobus line began in 1904, linking Saint-Germain-des-Prés to Montmartre.

The guidebooks never mentioned the quartiers populaires, or the impoverished suburbs of Paris, where most of the workers who ran the trams, built the popular new cars, and cleaned the city lived. Moreover, guides for visitors presented Paris as a pacified city, with insurrections, revolutions, and the Paris Commune of 1871 in the distant past.12

Following France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), ordinary Parisians had proclaimed their freedom from the provisional government that had been set up in Versailles, from which the kings had ruled during the Ancien Régime. After little more than two months, the Paris Commune was overrun by the troops of Adolphe Thiers, the president of the provisional French government. During the state-supported terror that ensued, which became known as “Bloody Week,” May 21–28, 1871, as many as fifteen thousand Parisians were killed, many summarily executed.13

But that was more than three decades earlier and, at least for wealthy Parisians, easily forgotten. Now, writers described Paris as the “capital of pleasure.” For Parisians of means, the years of the fin de siècle and the first decade of the twentieth century were “the good old days.” Vast sums of money now easily made up for blue blood. The “high bourgeoisie,” as they were sometimes known, including many nouveaux riches, had largely supplanted the old aristocracy. The term high life emerged from this period.14 The upper classes lived very well indeed, benefitting from the growth of the French economy that would last until 1914. Three years earlier, the census had identified 19.5 percent of Parisians as “employers”—including master artisans and thousands of people who did piecework in their rooms who were strangely classified as “patrons.” Another 21.4 percent were classified as white-collar workers, the percentage of which had increased by more than 2 percent since 1886. Finally, 59.3 percent were classified as “manual workers.”15

Wealthy Parisians dressed, spoke, and lived differently than ordinary people, so much so that even religion became a marker of class divides. The Catholic Church was far more likely to play a role in the lives of the upper classes than it played in the increasingly dechristianized quartiers populaires in northeastern Paris and the suburbs, even after the 1905 law on the Separation of Church and State ended government funding for religious organizations and made all churches and other religious buildings national or communal property. Elite marriages, baptisms, and funerals took place in the Church of the Madeleine in the eighth arrondissement. Protestants, too, were counted among the wealthiest Parisians.

As poet and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire put it, the French capital let loose “a fantasy both nostalgic and modernist.” For the wealthy, the fin de siècle and the first decade of the twentieth century were a time of dreams: “Everything pointed in that direction: women’s clothing, household decorations, sovereign kitsch, and the ambitions of the magnificent symbolist poets. We were in a crucible, in a factory taken over by madness. Everything was possible and everything could suddenly occur.”16

Upper-class amusements came at an increasingly steep price. Being able to afford an evening at the opera at the Palais Garnier signaled one’s arrival in the Paris of luxury, closely identified with the prestige of France, privilege, and central and particularly western Paris. Going up and down the opera house’s enormous marble double stairways lit by incredible chandeliers, le tout Paris (the Parisian bourgeois financial oligarchy) attended lavish operatic performances and the masked balls that captured the prevalent sense of operatic illusion.17

Fancy theaters also were closely identified with privilege. A few years earlier, an architect had noted that the theater was “a place of luxury.… The public loves lavish displays.” This was now even more the case. Seats for a performance at the Folies-Bergère or Le Lido near the Champs-Élysées went for four to five francs—a day’s salary for a worker—with standing room for three francs.18 This was the Paris of the aging actress Sarah Bernhardt, who would make her “farewell” tour of the United States in 1913 at age sixty-nine.19

Other remarkable technological advances further transformed Paris into the world’s center of pleasure. The cinema became the rage. The first paying performance was in December 1895, put on by Louis Lumière in the basement of the Grand Café on boulevard des Capucines. That year, the first advertisements appeared on screen—for chocolate, beer, hats, and corsets. In 1907, the Cirque d’Hiver on boulevard du Temple and the Hippodrome de Vincennes were transformed into movie theaters. In 1909, the Pathé Journal brought weekly news to the screen. In 1911, the Gaumont Palace opened its doors, becoming the largest movie theater in the world with three thousand four hundred seats. By 1913, annual receipts for films had reached nine million francs in Paris. Parisians had their choice of 121 theaters and 260 cinemas.20

The magnates of the “great bourgeoisie” hobnobbed with counts and countesses at fancy balls and receptions and at the horse races at Longchamp. They carried their passion for luxury to the spas that dotted the country. They took vacations on the Normandy coast, on the French Riviera, and at Biarritz. Men belonged to exclusive clubs, such as the Jockey Club near the place de la Concorde. They frequented restaurants such as Fouquet’s, which in 1899 had opened its doors on the Champs-Élysées, its scarlet banquettes and high prices symbolizing luxurious privilege. Maxim’s restaurant, on the rue Royale, near the Madeleine, offered a wine list of twenty-four pages and 842 vintages. “The City of Light” celebrated the theatrical dimensions of the ever-visible leisure of wealthy Parisians as they strutted and preened, assisted by bowing valets, drivers, waiters, and sommeliers attending to every whim of the privileged.21

A spate of publications presented Parisian women as ever ready for amorous encounters. Les cocottes, also known as les grandes horizontales, came to be identified with the pleasures of Paris, the “modern Babylon.”22 Nothing reflected their decadence, or entrenched class differences, more than the emergence of haute couture fashion as a Parisian—indeed French—trademark, at least for foreign consumption. Women closely followed changes in fashion, with voluminous garments and long dresses gradually giving way to narrower and somewhat shorter skirts at the same time that the “bastille” of the corset was slowly collapsing. Hats designed by Coco Chanel sprouted feathers. Women coveted François Coty’s perfumes.23 Men dressed themselves in black bourgeois uniforms right out of Honoré Daumier’s caricatures, inevitably complete with top hats.

The grands salons of Paris still functioned during the Republic, hosted by various princesses and marquises, including Napoleon’s niece, Princess Mathilde Bonaparte—at least until in 1904, when she passed away. (She was famously unaffected by political shifts. At one gathering, she remarked, “The French Revolution? Why, without it I’d be selling oranges on the streets of Ajaccio.”24) In the faubourg Saint-Germain, aristocratic remnants and grandes dames of the haute bourgeoisie received visitors almost every day, standing as determined rivals with those whom they considered craven imitators in the “little wars” of the salons. Political differences were still present, but nothing like the impassioned days when Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was Jewish, was condemned or found innocent in the lavish town houses of aristocratic families during the “Affair,” which lasted from 1894 until 1906. These practices trickled down to some degree. Middle-class women often also received female guests of their social class in the afternoon.25

If many in the bourgeoisie aped the aristocratic ideal of not working at all, workers and peasants existed only to provide services for them. Wealthy women managed large households (with their lavish, increasingly ornate interiors), which in effect meant overseeing the help. Governesses and domestic servants tended to their children. Shopkeepers and department-store clerks were there to attend to their shopping needs. Sheer wealth, maintained or augmented by inheritance and timely dowries, created considerable social differences with the various groups of “lesser” bourgeoisie drawn from the worlds of commerce, government service, and education.26

The motto of the Third Republic may have been “liberty, fraternity, equality,” but the term equality amounted to a charade. Bankers, industrialists, financiers, speculators, magistrates, wealthy notaries and lawyers, and high government officials—the grande bourgeoisie—ruled the roost. Paris was an imposing center of banking, commerce, manufacturing, and government. The French bourgeoisie lived “three times blessed” because of the economic, social, and political power that was all concentrated in their hands. The French elite benefited from ridiculously low direct taxes on their wealth. Some profited from investment in colonial enterprises, from Russian and Spanish railroads, or simply from buildings they owned in Paris or elsewhere. Regardless of industry, the upper ranks of the bourgeoisie were able to easily add to their fortunes.27

Even political change was more a charade than a reality. For more than the first two decades of the existence of France’s Third Republic, conservative republicans dominated. In 1898, the so-called Radical Republic came to power. But this changed very little. French Radicals were socially moderate, opposing both the Socialists and the Monarchists. Most Radicals were confirmed anticlericals who vociferously opposed any institutional role for the Catholic Church in the Republic. However, the Radical Republic appeared to be nothing more than a continuation of previous regimes, in which a small percentage of men of great means got their way as coalitions and governments came and went. When Alexandre Millerand became minister of labor and the first Socialist in a ministry in 1899, he found himself sitting at the same table during cabinet meetings with General Gaston Galliffet, one of the orchestrators of massacres during Bloody Week in May 1871.

The Third Republic has aptly been called La République des Copains (“The Republic of Pals”). The Chamber of Deputies, which included representatives of a variety of political opinions, was essentially a club of like-minded men. Many were subject to corruption, spending as much as necessary to be elected with promises and wine. The vast majority of deputies were drawn from the upper classes: wealthy property owners, rentiers, bankers, lawyers, doctors, and so on. Thirty to forty percent of deputies emerged from the grande bourgeoisie. Only a couple of workers and peasants were elected to the Chamber of Deputies. Deputies shared a collective psychology. They married women from the same social class. They tu-toied each other in the corridors, salons, and café of the Chamber of Deputies. Ministries came and went as if through a revolving door, but the personnel of the Republic remained essentially the same.28

Given that the Third Republic’s founding fathers had constituted executive authority to remain extremely weak—for fear of “Caesarism,” given the heritage of two emperors Napoleon—the Chamber of Deputies essentially ran France along with an extremely centralized administrative, judicial, and military apparatus organized from Paris. The Chamber of Deputies, elected by universal male suffrage, invariably acted on behalf of the wealthy—only in 1914 would it finally approve a tax on revenue. The Senate, whose members were elected indirectly by those elected to the Chamber of Deputies, members of regional councils in each département, and municipal officials, was even more conservative, reflecting rural influence.29 All this contributed to a sense, at least among the Third Republic’s critics, of inefficiency and stagnation.30

Parisian newspapers, which might have served as a check on the actions of the powerful, were instead largely complicit. The mass press had burgeoned during the big scandals of the Panama Canal Affair, when it became known in 1892 that members of the Chamber of Deputies had accepted bribes from the Panama Canal Company to facilitate a loan. The company had gone bankrupt in 1889. By the twentieth century, however, if France, like old Gaul, was divided into three parts (“estates”)—executive, legislative, and judicial authorities—the press had arguably become the fourth, receiving tips from politicians and influencing votes in the Chamber of Deputies. Printing machines (linotypes), developed in the United States in the 1890s, dramatically increased print runs and expanded the power of the press.

Newspapers in the French capital published a total of six million copies a day. In 1912, Le Petit Parisien published an astounding 1,295,000 copies a day, Le Journal 995,000, Le Matin 647,000 L’Éclair 135,000, and L’Excelsior 110,000. Victor Kibaltchiche’s


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John Merriman

About the Author

John Merriman is the Charles Seymour Professor of History at Yale University and the author of several books, including Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune, The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siecle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror, and the classic History of Modern Europe. He is the recipient of Yale’s Byrnes/Sewell Teaching Prize, a French Docteur Honoris Causa, and speaks frequently at universities across the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Australia.

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