By Aaron Freundschuh
Reviewed by Jim Burns
On March 17th, 1887, the body of a woman, aged around
forty, was discovered in her boudoir in an apartment on the rue
The first woman was Marie Regnault who, for the purposes of her business, went under the name of Régine de Montille. Her business was that of a courtesan, a high-class prostitute. The woman in the bedroom was her housekeeper, and the girl the housekeeper’s daughter. The furnishings and fittings in the apartment, together with original paintings on the walls, pointed to Marie Regnault being successful in what she did. A collection of calling cards made it clear that her clientele included some wealthy men.
Among the calling cards was one from Enrico Pranzini, a man who, it
turned out, had a colourful, and what might best be described as a
shady background. He was born in 1856 in the Egyptian
Pranzini, before arriving in
During later investigations some people claimed to have been duped
and swindled by Pranzini when they had business relationships with
him. And he was said to have been very much a ladies’ man, and known
to cultivate friendships with wealthy older women. There were other
allegations, including one of male prostitution when necessity
demanded it, all of which no doubt matched suspicions about the
moral degeneracy of Middle-Eastern types, not to mention Jews and
Latin-Americans. All were looked down on by many people in
Initially, Pranzini wasn’t considered a suspect in the murders. Some
clues at the scene of the crime appeared to point to other possible
killers. Cuff links found in the apartment had the initials G.G., as
did a belt, and were linked to a Gaston Geissler. He was traced to a
flea-bag hotel in
Pranzini had left
The murders, the funeral of Marie Regnault and the other victims,
and the subsequent auction of her possessions, aroused a great deal
of interest among the public in general. The newspapers, both in
Once he was brought back to
There had been a series of murders of courtesans, but it was shown
that Pranzini had not been in
Pranzini was sent for trial and the proceedings sometimes got close to being turned into entertainment. The Judge was biased from the start, reading out some of the love letters, highlighting Pranzini’s reputation as a gigolo, which he referred to as “the saddest means to get by”, and belittling efforts to mount a defence . Pranzini had been living with a woman named Antoinette Sabatier, a respectable person in steady employment who was some years older than him. She had first of all told police that Pranzini was at home with her on the night of the murders, but after being questioned, and possibly under duress (the police threatened to charge her as an accessory to the murders), she retracted her statement. Pranzini himself claimed to have been with a society woman on the night in question, but refused to name her.
The circumstantial evidence against Pranzini – his calling card, his contradictions about his whereabouts, his flight to Marseilles, his having trinkets probably from Regnault’s apartment in his possession, persuading his mistress to pawn some jewellery so he could buy a rail ticket to Marseilles – looked damning enough. But it may be that what finally clinched his guilt in the eyes of the jury was Antoinette Sabatier’s testimony from the witness box. She was in love with Pranzini, and always maintained her views that he was not a killer, but under oath she said that he hadn’t been at home on the night of the murders, and that he admitted to her that he had been present in Regnault’s apartment when they took place. His story was that he was visiting when another of her clients arrived. Regnault panicked and told Pranzini to hide in a “large armoire” in the corridor outside her boudoir. When he emerged from his hiding place he found the three dead females.
It seemed an unlikely story, especially as other tenants in the building testified that they had heard noises – something dropping to the floor, “hideous” cries”, - so surely Pranzini would have been aware of them? Pranzini denied that he’d ever told Sabatier anything about being in Regnault’s apartment.
Pranzini was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was guillotined on the 31st August, 1887, his execution bringing out large crowds to watch it. His body was then dissected, with the choice parts going to various medical schools and other institutions. What was left was picked over by journalists and the police. There was a scandal when it became known that some policeman had card cases made out of strips of Pranzini’s skin. It led, in turn to the resignation of the President when a senior policemen, in an act of revenge for being pilloried as one of the offending officers, released information about the activities of the President’s son-in-law. There were references to a prostitution ring, and to a trade in decorations for money at the Ministry of War. This is a story in itself, and Freundschuh provides the basic information about it.
I’ve sketched in the details of the Pranzini case, buti Freundschuh
does much more than that. He uses it to cast a harsh light on French
society in the late-19th century. Did the fact that Pranzini came
There had been a great deal of prurient interest in a report compiled by an anatomist, Dr. Brouardel who examined Pranzini shortly after his arrest, In Freundschuh’s words: “Brouardel located a single physiological trait that marked Pranzini as a threateningly exotic Other, if not a criminal. The genitals, wrote the doctor, `are very voluminous . The penis is long and thick. It is more than four centimetres in diameter at the base; the scrotum hangs rather low.’ In the coming months, rumours relating to the size of Pranzini’s genitalia contributed to the making of a criminal archetype and became a permanent part of his legend”. Male French fears about the supposed virility of men like Pranzini were no doubt heightened by Dr. Brouardel’s findings.
There was also the problem that Pranzini’s success with women raised questions about their sexuality. If women were allowed to indulge their sexual needs and desires too openly it could lead to the collapse of French society, or so some influential men thought. People like Pranzini had to be controlled, one way or another. And French women like Antoinette Sabatier, who chose to live with and seek sexual satisfaction from types such as Pranzini, had to be shown to be morally corrupt.
It’s interesting to note that, around this time, there was a great deal of concern (among conservative commentators, at least) about the way in which many women appeared to be almost addicted to the idea of shopping, especially for items like hats. Female shoppers were said to be “frivolous” and carried away by “uncontrollable desires”, and they “placed personal shopping satisfaction before family commitments”. The parallels with male worries about female sexual satisfaction are easy to see. Other observers took the view that shopping gave women a form of independence, but then certain men might well have objected to that, too.
It’s also useful to record that some of the women who worked in the millinery trade, which was notoriously low-paid, were pushed into turning to prostitution to earn money (see Hollis Clayson’s Painted Love: Prostitution in French Art of the Impressionist Era, Yale University Press, 1991, and Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade by Simon Kelly and Esther Bell, Prestel Publishing, 2017). There is no suggestion that Antoinette Sabatier was in any way involved in prostitution. She had a good job at the milliner’s shop where she worked and appeared to earn enough to support herself, and Pronzini, too, it would seem. But it can be imagined that the combination of her employment, her independence, and her association with Pranzini, would have worked against her in the eyes of many people.
The right-wing politicians and press in
The Courtesan and the Gigolo
is a fascinating book, in which Freundschuh has much to say about
the nature of policing in