In 1899 the President of France died, in his office, alone with his much younger mistress. If rumour is to be believed, he died happy.
I sometimes write about unusual deaths in office: the prime minister who walked into the ocean; the prime minister stabbed to death in parliament. Félix Faure, the President of France from 1895 to 1899, today joins this illustrious list.
Faure was many things: a tanner, a Freemason, a government minister, and finally the president of the republic. (His elevation to the highest rank mirrors that of Jim Hacker in the TV series Yes, Minister: after the president unexpectedly resigned, he was the inoffensive compromise candidate elected to block the less-moderate Henri Brisson.) Faure was also a fan of the ladies.
Marguerite Steinheil, twenty-eight years younger than Faure, was one of those ladies. For two years she had been a frequent evening visitor to the president’s palace, and February 16, 1899, was no exception. While they were in one of the president’s offices together the chief of staff heard alarmed yells, and charged in to find Faure in the midst of a seizure, clutching Steinheil’s hair. Neither was wearing much in the way of clothes. Faure was dead by morning.
That’s where the facts end and the rumours begin. The French press were convinced that he had died in flagrante delicto, and bubbled over with saucy puns and deadpan statements like “given the perils of high office, to be specific, he died of natural causes.” (Please forgive my clumsy translation, by the way – I only took high school French. The original is “n’avait pas été victime des dangers inhérents à sa haute fonction, si pour être plus catégorique, il est bien mort de mort naturelle.”)
Another rumour suggested that Steinheil had killed him. She was later tried for killing her husband and mother in a faked home invasion, so I suppose it’s not outside the realms of possibility. (She was acquitted, despite trying to pin the crime on other innocent parties.) He was rumoured to be a frequent user of Spanish fly – a popular but dangerous aphrodisiac derived from powdered beetle – and maybe that final dose was fatal. Yet another rumour is that he was poisoned for his role in the Dreyfus Affair, possibly the biggest scandal of 19th century France. You may have heard of the famous letter by Émile Zola titled “J’accuse!” – that letter was addressed to Faure.
What is certain, amidst all these rumours, is that Faure was more famous in death than in life. Aside from the salacious details of his final night, his passing actually triggered a coup attempt by a far-right anti-Semitic group called the League of Patriots, so honestly it was a bit of a mess all around.