In late-nineteenth century France, an unwritten but no less firmly established law held that a wronged woman might be excused for exacting revenge upon her wrongdoer - even when that revenge took the most extreme of forms. This 'law' was not based upon any legal precedents. French Law in fact, as it was then written, substantially favoured men over women in most circumstances. Article 324 of the French Penal code, for example, specifically excused any man for killing his wife in the event of surprising her with a lover in the marital home - but that dispensation did not equally apply to the wife if the situation was reversed. Not all laws are necessarily written down, however - some simply come about by custom of usage without ever being enshrined in legal statute. The 'law' involved in this case was one of those. In the case of the wronged woman, the simple fact was that, regardless of the letter of the law, French juries seldom saw fit to blame her for avenging herself on her abuser.
In March, 1880, Mdlle. Marie Biere, a moderately successful actress and singer, found occasion to put this unwritten law to the test when she was called to account for the attempted murder of her former lover, in a trial which would become the sensation not only of France, but of all Europe.
Marie Biere was born at Bordeaux in 1848 to parents of modest means. As a child she displayed an aptitude for music, marking her out as destined for a career on the stage. After receiving a modest education in her home city, her parents managed to raise the funds necessary to complete her theatrical training at the Conservatoire in Paris, where she enrolled in 1867. For the next few years she followed her musical studies at the conservatoire, only narrowly failing to win the coveted academical prize, which fell to one of her fellow students.
Leaving the Conservatoire in 1873 she began her professional career by accepting small engagements at the Italiens and the Lyrique in Paris. Finding opportunities to be rather limited in Paris, however, she then chose to try her luck in the provinces under the professional name of Maria Beraldi. It proved to be a propitious move, as she enjoyed considerable success and soon found herself much in demand. In September, 1877, she arrived at the fashionable southern retreat of Biarritz, where she would stay for the next few weeks giving concerts.
Up until this time, always accompanied by her mother, she had successfully resisted all of the romantic temptations to which her position exposed her. But this was about to change. In Biarritz she became the amorous target of M. Robert Gentien, a rich young Parisian who owned lands in the Bordeaux region. Gentien was a handsome man of approximately her own age, with elegant manners and a taste for "the fast life." Marie found herself unable to resist his advances, and before long they were spending much time together - despite her mother's severe warnings.
Returning to Paris later in the year, she compromised herself by becoming the Mistress of Gentien, although she later admitted there was never any promise of marriage. This guilty liasion could not long be hidden from her parents, and when they learned of it they disavowed her. But Gentien was a fly-by-night, already tiring of the association. In January, 1878, he persuaded Marie to go to Brussels to take up an engagement he had arranged for her there. She did, but soon after her arrival in Brussels she discovered she was about to become the mother of Gentien's child. The stress of the situation she found herself in then caused her to lose her voice, forcing her to withdraw from her theatrical engagement. Afraid and discomfited, she returned to Paris, to the one man she beleived she could depend upon.
Gentien, however, was deeply annoyed by her return - even more so when he learned of her delicate condition. He refused to give his name to the child, although he did allow the mother-to-be a monthly pension of three hundred francs. His visits to her became increasingly less frequent, however, and when the child arrived on October 2nd he refused to see it or even acknowledge it's existence. Although she dearly loved the infant, a girl, Marie put her out to nurse with a working woman at St. Denis in the hopes of winning back Gentien's affections. But still he displayed a coldness towards her which caused frequent quarrels between them. The following April tragedy struck when the child died suddenly, causing a distraught Marie to berate her lover, blaming the death of the child on his aversion to it which had caused her to put it out to nurse. Even then, Gentien still refused to acknowledge his daughter or even to attend the funeral. Worse, he began to distance himself from Marie and cut her allowance almost by half. Seeing her lover slipping away from her, Marie confronted him, and a fierce quarrel ensued during which she threatened to kill herself. Indifferent to her distress, however, Gentien cruelly dismissed her, and the rupture was complete.
Months passed, but the wound that Gentien had inflicted in Marie's heart showed no sign of healing, but rather festered as her state of mind grew increasingly morbid. Having estranged herself from her parents and lost her own child on his behalf, Gentien's callousness towards her was more than her simple heart could bear. In December, she wrote in her diary "My darling baby is in her deep grave, but I shall soon be with her, in a better, kinder world than this."
She had determined to kill herself, but then jealously turned her deep despair to rage when she discovered that Gentien had taken a new lover, Mdlle. Colas, an actress at the Palais Royale. Anger drove away thoughts of her own destruction, focusing her mind instead on exacting her revenge on her former lover. Consequently, she purchased several pistols and revolvers and practised daily with them in her apartment. She pinned a photograph of Gentien in her diary and wrote next to it "This is Robert, whom Marie has condemned to death," and recorded how, for some time, she watched all his movements but was unable to find a favourable moment to get to him.
On one occasion, armed with a revolver, she had lain in wait for him at the Hippodrome, but the place had been too crowded for her to act. For the unknowing Gentien, that had been a lucky escape, but Marie was determined, and it was to be only a matter of time before she would find her opportunity. That opportunity eventualy arrived on January 7th, 1880. After waiting for hours in a cab outside his house on the Rue Auber, at the side of the Opera House, she observed Gentien leaving home in the company of his new amour. Alighting from the cab, she stepped into line behind him, drew her revolver and, without warning, fired three shots. One of the bullets struck him in the back, another in the right leg, and he slumped to the ground sorely wounded. Marie made no attempt to escape, but remained at the scene where she was quickly arrested. Taken into police custody she at once confessed her crime - regretting only that she did not succeed in killing him. For some weeks Gentien's life hung in the balance so that it appeared that her attempt at taking his life may yet succeed. Eventually, however, he pulled through and subsequently made a complete recovery.
Mdlle. Biere's trial for the attempted murder of Gentien began on April 5th, 1880, and attracted a great deal of public attention. If the lady was found guilty her minimum punishment would be five years imprisonment - the maximum, death! The court room was crowded with celebrities of all kinds, including numerous prominent stage personages. The hugely popular actress/comedienne Lia Felix was there, and the writing profession was ably represented by the novelists Alexandre Dumas and Adolphe Belot. The feminine element was, of course, to the forefront, and as Mdlle. Biere - looking graceful and elegant, dressed in black - was brought forward to the prisoner's box a great susurration swept through the court room as all eyes were fixed on her.
As the trial began, M. Gentien was called to give evidence. He admitted that he had refused to recognise the child that Mdlle. Biere had borne to him on the ground of the scandal that it might have caused to his family. In the course of his testimony he insinuated that Mdlle. Biere had not been virtuous when he had first met her, and ellicited cries of derision from the gathered assembly when he claimed that he had always acted as en galant homme (a gentleman) towards her.
In her defence, Mdlle. Biere rejected the suggestion that she had acted out of jealousy, and asserted instead that "I hate and despise him now as much as I loved him formerly," and added, "it was the death of my child, for which I consider him responsible, that made me resolve to kill him." Her counsel, Maitre Lauchard, gave an impassioned speech on her behalf, in which he characterised Mdlle. Biere as being a pure and virtuous woman prior to making the acquaintance of Gentien, and asked what might be more natural than that she should have desired her seducer to marry her. He then gave a touching description of the birth of the child, the callous reaction of the father, and the despair of his client at the tragic death of the infant. Evidence as to Marie's mental condition was then offered by examining psychiatrist, Dr. Blanche, who testified that "when the accused fired at M. Gentien she knew what she did, but she was at the time under the influence of such passion and morbid excitement that it was very difficult for her to resist those sentiments which dominated her and obliterated her moral sense."
Lauchard's master stroke in Marie's defence came in his closing speech. The fact that Gentien had not cast Marie off penniless, but had in fact settled a liberal income upon her in the aftermath of her pregnancy was, on the face of it, a mitigating factor in his ill-treatment of her, which could in turn have been seen to be an aggravating circumstance in her crime. But it was upon this very fact that Lauchard pinned his most compelling defence. He fully admitted of Marie's baseborn past "but," he asked, "what has that to do with it? If this poor creature conceived a true and tender feeling of love for this man, if she had cherished the dream of becoming his wife and leading a life of purity thenceforth, was it not a most pitiable thing that her hopes of redemption should have been destroyed? You saw how she spurned his money - her love had purified her - he had won her heart and his desertion made her desperate. Are you going now by your verdict to affirm that women who have once fallen shall never be allowed to love, shall never blot out the past, shall be subject all their lives to the degradation of offers such as this by which Marie Biere's lover sought, as he cynically said, to compensate her? Compensation at the rate of 300 francs a month for a broken heart! Compensation by insult for a wrong most cruel, most worthy of good men's compassion!"
Continuing his speech, he painted a picture of Gentien as a man who was uncaring and indurate, incapable of understanding maternal affection or of appreciating the true love of a woman. Of his client, he observed that "it is true, gentlemen, that the prisoner has lodged two bullets in her lover's back, but he has sent one through her heart." Lauchard then concluded his defence by demanding the acquittal of his client, "a woman whom the law might consider guilty but who, in human conscience, was a martyr to her heart."
After the summing up of the judge, the jury retired but took a mere five minutes to return with a verdict. Their finding of "not guilty" was greeted with pandemonium in the court-room as the public gallery whooped with delight at Mdlle. Biere's acquittal. Marie was carried from the court-house the heroine of Paris, to the ecstatic delight of the huge crowd waiting outside on the Salle des Pas Perdus. The case had acheived for her that which her histrionic talent alone had been incapable - it made her a cause celébre overnight. Gentien, on the other hand, was a broken man, the newspapers, and indeed all of Paris, vilified him and he was forced to flee the city in disgrace.
In the aftermath of the case Marie received four remarkable offers: one, from a lady of wealth, was for a considerable sum of money provided that she would go into a convent; another was an offer of marriage from an English journalist; and a third was that of a huge salary from an American showman if she would consent to be exhibited. These three she rejected. The fourth, a further offer of marriage from Prince Constantine Boudesko of Roumania she, at length, accepted.
As popular as it was at the time, Marie's acquittal resulted in the most disastrous of consequences. Over the next two years, in Paris alone more than twenty girls were arraigned at the Assizes for seeking reparation for their blighted hopes and exacting revenge against the man who blighted them. These cases included stabbings, shootings and vitriol (acid) throwing and almost invariably resulted in a repeat of M. Lachaud's famous speech, adjusted for the particular circumstances of the case in hand. Almost all of these cases ended in acquittal.
Alexandre Dumas, who was present at Marie Biere's trial, was subsequently prompted to write a pamphlet, "Les Femmes qui tuent et les femmes qui votent" (Women who kill and women who vote), in which he examined the social and political issues raised by the case. He argued that women like Mdlle. Biere reacted out of desperation born of the unequal position in which they found themselves. Without the right to vote, without the right to have an bank account, the right to ask for a divorce even, women were unequal in power or respect to their husbands. In a society where the laws were made by and for the men, they did not profit from any recourse in the event of abandonment of themselves or their children. Without any such recourse, then, it seems but little wonder that they should resort to self-help.