Note: The following post was written by Sam Gibson, Washington and Lee University class of 2017, who worked on this project in Summer 2016 and Summer 2017.
A decade before the grisly deaths of her mother and husband catapulted her name and personal life into the public eye, Marguerite – Meg –Steinheil was infamous in certain circles for her illicit love affair with then president of the Republic, Félix Faure. Long before her dramatic confessions and accusations about the murders in her home enthralled the French public, Meg, hair and clothes disheveled, was whisked out of the Elysée in a coach after Faure suffered a fatal stroke in flagrante delicto. Elites and Faure’s political enemies seized on the salacious story and rumors and gossip about the exact nature of the pair’s relationship and of the details of Faure’s unfortunate demise abounded. As the Steinheil Affair unfolded in the press over the course of 1908 and 1909, the lurid details about Meg and the president’s relations would be published in all of their scandalous glory, breaking a deferential silence that had more or less endured for nearly a decade. Shocking images of Meg and the president appeared in the illustrated sections of the sensationalist French papers, alongside wild conspiracy theories in the partisan dailies. Suspicions about the president’s death, related to his role in the divisive Dreyfus Affair, also emerged. The nationalist and rightwing press, incensed at the overturning of Dreyfus’ conviction, would allege conspiracies about the death of Faure, as he had been unwilling to revisit Dreyfus’ case, unlike his successor. Ultimately, it seems that as the Steinheil Affair unraveled, something catalyzed the French press to revisit the story of Faure’s death.
While this research project focuses on the press coverage of the Steinheil Affair, looking into the ways in which Meg’s former claim to fame is discussed can shed some light on some of the ways in which the scandal played out. More specifically, understanding when and why Faure’s death is invoked can yield wider insights about the Steinheil Affair itself. In making reference to the affair, at what points do newspapers drop their habit of deferential vagueness, out of respect for the presidency? Why? Why do they mention it when they do? Do mentions of Meg’s past with the former president serve a particular political purpose?
It certainly is not uncommon for presidents, perhaps especially presidents of France, to have mistresses and lovers. A more contemporary example can be found in President François Mitterrand, who headed the French state from 1981 to 1995. Mitterrand came to be known for the secret, second family, with his lover Anne Pingeot and their illegitimate daughter Mazarine. Though Mitterrand was able to keep the existence of his second family largely hidden away from the public, most French journalists were aware of his secret family, even before his presidential run. However, in observance of the “august French tradition of discretion” that has marked French political culture for a long time, they refrained from publishing the details — and even when they did, it was with a certain “delicatesse.” Felix Faure enjoyed a similar privilege of deference and discretion. While most French journalists knew about the details of his death and relationship with Meg, they held back from discussing it – until, that is, the Steinheil Affair took off.
As the story about the murders at the Impasse Ronsin first broke, various articles included references to the late president and his well-known friendship with the Steinheil family. Articles mentioned a portrait commissioned by Faure and his general patronage of Adolphe Steinheil. In the Le Journal article from June 1st, Adolphe is mentioned in the following way: “Le peintre Steinheil (Edouard-Charles-Adolphe), âgé de quarante-huit ans, neveu de l’illustre Meissonier, et que le Président Félix Faure avait distingué en maintes occasions, a été assassiné…” The June 1st article from L’Intransigeant includes a more subtle and interesting reference to Faure : “Ce crime soulève dans les milieux parisiens une émotion d’autant plus vive que le peintre Steinheil fréquentait beaucoup chez le regretté président Félix Faure, qui était un ami très intime de sa famille et qui eut la fin tragique que l’on sait.”  No overt discussion of the relationship between Meg and Faure appears, but public memory of the story would have allowed a mere mention of the late president’s name in connection to the Steinheil family to serve as a cheeky reminder of the affair — almost as if to remind the readership, “we’ve seen this woman before.” Some of the other mentions are a bit more mundane, but they appear in June nonetheless.
Sporadic references to Faure continue in the coverage, but at a particular moment in the unfolding of the affair, there’s a notable shift. Around the end of November 1908, mentions of the late president’s name spike. This was around the time of Meg’s “Night of Confessions,” wherein she made her series of accusations and confessions about the nature of the crime, covered breathlessly by the press. Below is a chart depicting occurrences of the token “Faure” in the articles of three newspapers, sorted by date. To keep the chart legible, there is a selection of articles from three newspapers covering the spectrum. Included are articles from L‘Intransigeant, the right-wing nationalist paper, Le Journal, a major sensationalist daily, and L’Humanité, the socialist paper.
It is easy to discern from this small example that around the time of November 1908, several months after the murders, mentions of Faure’s name reappear in the articles covering the Steinheil Affair — to a greater extent than the June articles or even the 1909 articles covering Meg’s trial. His name occurs much more often in the Le Journal, but the trend is noticeable for all three papers. This trend actually holds across all of the major French newspapers included in this project, but this small cross-section in the graph above illustrates it well. It is not immediately apparent, at least from these word count graphs, why the president’s name surges in popularity around the end of November 1908, but using other tools like topic modeling can yield some insight.
Topic modeling also provides an intuitive way to get a grasp on the ways that the Faure connection was mentioned across the various publications and articles. By focusing our topic modeling specifically on the November 1908 articles, we will be able to see the context in which Faure’s name is mentioned and the group of words with which it is co-occurring. While the algorithms in topic modeling generate slightly different results every time, below is the first four topics of one iteration of topic modeling which we did solely for the November 1908 articles, which cover five days from the 26th to the 30th.
0 japy (75) andré (59) logis (47) mai (46) ami (45) meg (41) château (41) relations (40) ardennes (39) paris (37) marguerite (35) enfants (35)
1 président (78) faure (75) félix (69) mort (35) suffit (26) elysée (21) docteur (18) courtois (18) malade (14) chauffeur (14) février (12) autopsie (12)
2 andré (58) leydet (54) arlon (41) procureur (38) bijoux (33) comte (22) rémy (21) vert (19) dossier (19) inculpée (18) valentin (17) monier (17)
3 wolff (491) alexandre (313) sûreté (155) mère (133 leydet (128) rémy (124) assassin (111) fils (95) hamard (87) suis (63) liberté (60) innocent (59)
Some of these are fairly easy to pick out, in the context of the story. Topic 0 deals with Meg’s use of her country home, Vert Logis, as a meeting place for her liaisons with her many wealthy lovers. It includes the word “Ardennes,” which is a reference to one of her lovers, Mr. Borderel. Topic 2’s word group refers to the dramatic revelation that Meg had planted a pearl on her valet, Remy, in an attempt to frame him for the robbery and murders. Topic 1, however, is the one we need to look at, as it appears to refer to the story of Meg’s affair with Faure. Within the group of words in Topic 1, terms like “elysée” and “février” (February) clearly refer to Faure’s death in the Elysée in February of 1899. The other words refer to the autopsy of Faure and the doctor who wrote a note alleging Meg was too ill to be in the palace that day — the same doctor who became the forensic medical examiner for the deaths of Adolphe Steinheil and Meg’s mother. Words like “chauffeur” (driver), “mort” (death) round out the details of the story and confirm that in November, 1908, the death of Félix Faure becomes a “topic” in the coverage of the Steinheil Affair. Though all of the topics deal with Meg’s misdeeds, this one specifically jumps out. Topic modeling also allows us to make a measure of probability, or the percentage of a given article each topic occupies. This metadata about each topic tells us which topics are most prominent in a given article.
This metadata will allow us to zero in on the articles where the Faure topic is prominent. For example, on November 29th, 1908, one article from Le Matin starts off: “Au moment où l’affaire Steinheil a fait revivre le souvenir de la fin subite du président Félix Faure, nous avons voulu examiner en toute impartialité les circonstances qui accompagnèrent cet événement historique.” Within this Le Matin article, more or less 14.4% of the words (excluding stop works) are from this topic. The metadata from the modeling also shows that Le Matin’s November 30th piece called “L’Affaire Félix Faure” has about more or less 19% participation in this topic. In this article, a lengthy firsthand account of Faure’s last moments is reproduced alongside a series of complaints about the slow justice process. Tellingly, the authors lament: “La pensée que des hommes innocents pouvaient être emprisonnés suivant les caprices d’une femme, certainement malade et peut- être coupable, révolte le sentiment profond que nous avons tous de la liberté individuelle.” Ultimately, these men were concerned with the idea that Meg — a capricious and untrustworthy woman — was getting innocent men imprisoned. In that vein, maybe they felt necessary to recall and perhaps suggest her role the death of another great man, Félix Faure. Another article from La Croix strays directly into the realm of conspiracy, alleging that it is possible that Meg poisoned the president: “Ceux qui cherchent à pénétrer les secrets de la politique, qui n’ont qu’un respect médiocre pour les versions officielles, n’ignoraient pas que Mme Steinheil avait assisté aux derniers moments de Félix Faure. Tout était connu dans les moindres détails, tout sauf un point: Mme Steinheil versa-t-elle volontairement la mort au malheureux président?”
A number of other articles follow suit, suddenly dredging up the story of Meg’s alleged affair with Faure. Why then, in November of 1908, was it necessary for the newspapers to tell the story of Faure’s death after holding their tongues for nearly a decade? In this case, it is useful to actually return to the story itself. It is possible that Meg’s constant lying, distorting of the details of the story, and recanting her previous testimonies, pushed the press to abandon typical protocols involving stories about the private lives of the elite. Once it became clear that Meg had lied again, the papers were harsh in their appraisal of her, even criticizing the investigation for not seriously having considered her a suspect up to that point. Meg had altered the details of her testimony several times over the course of the investigation, but at the end of November 1908, her fortunes took a turn for the worse. Testimony from a jeweler had completely undermined Meg’s accusation against Remy Couillard and Meg was forced to admit that she herself had planted the pearl on the hapless valet in order to frame him for the robbery and ensuing murders. Pushed to the brink by the damning revelation that she had lied about Couillard, Meg made a series of desperate accusations against Alexandre Wolff, the son of her cook. These accusations, made to two reporters on the night of November 25th-26th, became known as the “Night of Confessions” and confounded journalists, who were unsure how to proceed. From the point of view of the inspectors on the case, it was clear that Meg had grown truly desperate. Though she had been less than fully cooperative ts since June, it was her accusation against Alexandre Wolff proved the last straw. The next day, she was charged with “complicité” ; her constant lying had frustrated the investigators’ efforts to solve the murders. This development sent shock waves through the French public. After a parade of possible culprits, suspicion had finally fallen on Meg. As the tide of public opinion began to turn on the beleaguered widow, journalists may no longer have felt bound to respect the traditions of discretion that had largely governed their coverage up to that point. Meg had been exposed as a liar and as potentially complicit in the murders of her family, and now it was incumbent upon the press to reveal the full truth about Marguerite Steinheil, which included her potential role in the infamous death of Félix Faure.
Once the investigation had formally turned on Meg, a lot of pretenses were dropped. The sympathy, or at least the benefit of the doubt, that she had enjoyed up to this point in the press coverage was cast away in favor of harsher treatment that brought up a painful and buried past relationship with the late president. For her part, Meg denied any sort of affair with Faure, but it did her little good. The significance of the Faure connection is that it shows a crucial break in press protocol; Meg’s exposure as a serial liar and the ensuing charges of complicity simply pushed the press too far. All bets were off and it was important for the public to know who this woman, this potential murderer, really was. Ultimately, the story about Félix Faure was a story about Meg: her misbehavior, her misdeeds, her affairs, and her lies.
 “The painter Steinheil (Edouard-Charles-Adolphe), aged 48, nephew of the illustrious Meissonier, and that President Félix Faure had honored numerous times, was killed…” (trans. Sam Gibson)
 “This crime provokes in Parisian circles an emotion all the more intense considering that the Steinheil painter was a frequent guest of the late President Félix Faure, who was a close friend of the family and whose tragic end we all know.” (trans. Sam Gibson)
 “As the Steinheil affair has brought back the memory of the sudden death of the president Felix Faure, we wanted to examine with complete impartiality the circumstances that surrounded this historic event.” (trans. Sam Gibson)
 “The thought that innocent men could be imprisoned on the whims of a woman, certainly ill and perhaps guilty, outrages the profound sense of individual liberty that we all have.” (trans. Sam Gibson)
 “Those who wish to penetrate the secrets of politics, who have only a mediocre respect for the official version of the story, have not ignored the fact that Mme Steinheil was present for Félix Faure’s final moments. All the details were known, all except one: did Mme Steinheil voluntarily dispense death (as in poison) to the unfortunate president?” (trans. Sam Gibson)
Figure 5.1: Le Petit Journal, “Décès du président Félix Faure,” Wikimedia Commons. Accessed: July 31st, 2017. Available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Faure.1212301544-1-.jpg