The Nitty Gritty: The Steinheil Affair and the Press

Because the blog posts discuss details of the Steinheil Affair and/or the press culture of the time, this page goes into more depth on the unfolding of the affair, its participants, and the newspapers being examine. I’ll be updating as necessary.

The Newspapers

The following table lists all ten newspapers studied in this project, their politics, their circulation (as of 1912), and whether they count as one of the “big four” of mass-market Parisian dailies or more politically oriented journals. The information on papers’ circulations and politics comes from Christophe Charle, Le Siècle de la presse, 160-161.

La CroixRightpolitical press14,000
Le FigaroRightpolitical press37,000
L’HumanitéSocialistpolitical press72,000
L’IntransigeantNationalistpolitical press70,000
Le JournalRepublicanbig four810,000
Le MatinModerate republicanbig four670,000
Le Petit JournalRepublicanbig four835,000
Le Petit ParisienRepublicanbig four1,400,000
Le RadicalLeftpolitical press29,000
Le TempsCenter-leftpolitical press36,000

The Steinheil Affair

Adolphe Steinheil was a second-rate academic painter whose wife Marguerite hosted a noted salon in Paris. The couple was estranged, due to Adolphe’s sexual relations with men (as well as with women) and his inability to support the household financially. To raise money, Mme Steinheil had affairs with men who bought Adolphe’s paintings and gave her gifts of cash and jewelry. Her lovers came from the ranks of high state officials, but rumors also linked her to the future Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, and a Russian Grand Duke. Her most famous conquest was Félix Faure when he was president of the Republic. The Faure/Steinheil liaison has become a French national legend due to the circumstances of his death on February 16, 1899. Faure had a stroke while he and Mme Steinheil were having sex and he either died on the spot or some hours later. She was never named in any of the initial accounts of his death, but many in Parisian society knew the rumors and indeed she achieved a great deal of renown after his death. Faure’s death was also at the height of the Dreyfus Affair and had political consequences, as the news president was more amenable to having the case retried.

The Steinheil Affair began on the morning of May 31, 1908. Rémy Couillard, the household’s valet, found Mme Steinheil tied to her daughter’s bed, while her husband and her mother were dead of apparent strangulation. According to Mme Steinheil, a red-headed woman and three bearded men dressed in long black robes and wearing large-brimmed hats broke into the house around midnight and robbed it. They killed her husband and mother, but spared her, thinking she was the Steinheil’s daughter, Marthe (who was staying at the family’s house outside of Paris). The tale was improbable, especially since there were no signs of forced entry and many valuables and large sums of cash were left in the house. Mme Steinheil had also been tied to be the bed in a fashion that demonstrated a great deal of attention to her comfort and showed no signs of injury or struggle. Nevertheless, both the chief of police and examining magistrate publicly declared that she was entirely innocent of any involvement in the double-murder and that it had to be an outside job. This was the subject of the newspaper articles on June 1 and June 2, 1908. When the case faded from view after about two weeks, many suspected that it had been covered up, either because Mme Steinheil was the real killer but had too many friends in high places or, as many historians of the affair suggest, because the murderer was one of her lovers who was himself a prominent political figure.

The case, though, would not die, and in late October, it burst on to the scene again when Mme Steinheil wrote a letter to L’Écho de Paris saying that an arrest was imminent. In November, when no such arrest materialized, Mme Steinheil placed a ring that she claimed had been stolen on the night of the murder in Couillard’s belongings; he became the chief suspect. However, the Steinheil’s jeweler recognized a photograph of the ring that a newspaper had published as one that Mme Steinheil had brought to him June 1908. When he went to the authorities, they thus knew that Mme Steinheil had the ring in her possession after the crime (and so was lying about what as stolen) and had reason to suspect that she had planted the evidence on Couillard. The revelation from the jewelers was the subject of press reports on November 26, 1908. After being pressed by journalists, she she blamed the cook’s son, Alexandre Wolff, for the murder. When he produced a rock-solid alibi, she returned to her original claim of the redheaded woman and the robed men and was arrested and thrown into jail and became the state’s lead suspect.  (Newspapers reported on Mme Steinheil’s accusation of Wolff and her imprisonment on November 27, 1908). In the following days (November 28-30, 1908), the Parisian press was filled with reports of Mme Steinheil’s misdeeds, including details of her love affairs. In November 1909, she was put on trial for the murders and found not guilty. The November 4 and 5, 1909 articles are from the first two days of the trial, the November 14, 1909 articles are from the last day.

The Individuals of the Steinheil Affair

Aubin, Antony: Mme Steinheil’s defense lawyer

Borderel, Maurice: Mme Steinheil’s last lover before the double-murder

Couillard, Rémy: The Steinheil’s valet, chief suspect for a number of days after Mme Steinheil planted evidence on him

Faure, Félix: President of France 1895-1899 and Mme Steinheil’s lover

Hamard, Octave: The head of the Sûreté, the Parisian police’s investigative branch

Japy, Émile: Mme Steinheil’s mother and one of the victims of the double-murder

Steinheil, Adolphe: Mme Steinheil’s husband, a a not terribly successful painter

Steinheil, Marguerite: The woman at the heart of the affair

Steinheil, Marthe: Adolphe and Marguerite’s only child who was in her teens at the time of the affair

Valles: The presiding judge of the trial

Wolff, Alexandre: Mariette’s son and a horse trader; Mme Steinheil accused him of the double murder, but he had an alibi

Wolff, Mariette: The Steinheil’s cook and Mme Steinheil’s confidante