By Aaron Freundschuh

Stanford University Press. 258 pages. £20.99/$24.95. ISBN 978-1-5036-00829 (paperback)

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 Montaigne in Paris. Another body of a middle-aged woman was found in a nearby bedroom, along with that of a young girl of about twelve years of age. All the victims had been killed in a particularly brutal manner with some sort of knife, and the girl’s head was almost completely severed from her body.

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 port of Alexandria, though his parents were Italian. According to Aaron Freundschuh, Pranzini “thought of the Islamic Ottoman Empire as his homeland. To Parisians, he was an `Arab-speaking Levantine’, a hybrid of East and West, who in this era of `scientific’ racism, exemplified an inferior racial constitution”. This was something that was to be of importance when later events put Pranzini on trial for his life.

Pranzini, before arriving in Paris, had travelled quite extensively. He spoke several languages and had worked as an interpreter for the Russian Army during disputes with Turkey over territorial claims. He had also been an interpreter with the British Army during its adventures in Sudan and Afghanistan. Various commercial dealings came and went, he spent some time in India, and Pranzini had been convicted of theft when he was employed by the Egyptian Postal Service and imprisoned for nine months.

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 Paris.

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 Paris, but had left when police arrived to arrest him. A confrontation with the hotel manager about an unpaid bill had led to Geissler leaving his belongings behind when he quit the premises. The police thought he might return, but details of his name and the hotel were printed in newspapers, and may have alerted him to the fact that he was being sought for questioning. The role of the press became crucial as the investigations into the murders continued. A journalist named Georges Grison was to become notorious for his clashes with the police about their handling of the case.

Pranzini had left Paris a couple of days after the bodies had been discovered, and turned up in Marseilles, where he registered at a hotel as “Dr. E.Pranzini, Swedish Doctor”.  Freundschuh says that Pranzini visited a local brothel “and paid for a threesome with two female prostitutes”. He offered to sell them some jewellery, which aroused the brothel owner’s suspicions. The local police were alerted and Pranzini was arrested.  What particularly interested the police when they searched his belongings was a bag containing “a considerable stash of love letters ……..tucked alongside some female garments and bespoke feminine handkerchiefs”. It helped to convince the authorities that Pranzini was a gigolo, “whose distinguished features and worldliness enabled him to seduce well-to-do women and then prevail upon them to part with their valuables”. But, as Pranzini, who was quite open about his involvements with women, pointed out, his life-style, reprehensible though it may have been to many people, did not mean that he was a murderer.

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 France and abroad, reported In detail what was known about Regnault’s life, and there were suggestions that the young girl, also known as Marie, may not have been the housekeeper’s daughter, but Regnault’s. She had been kept away from whatever business the courtesan transacted in her rooms, and sent to a decent school to be educated. And, significantly, Regnault’s will named the girl as the sole beneficiary.

The Paris police were notified that Pranzini was being held in Marseilles, though oddly the information was passed to them by a reporter. Other newspapermen, besides Georges Grison, often had good cause for criticising what appeared to be the disorganised way in which the police operated. Freundschuh is informative about the Paris police, and in particular the Vice Squad which was largely made up on ex-military men who had served in the French colonies in Africa and the Far East. Their methods, sometimes based on how they had acted with local populations, were not always suited to the French metropolitan area. It has to be said, too, that compared to what exists today, the equipment and facilities available to the police were limited. It wasn’t unusual for the police to arrive at a crime scene after the press.

Once he was brought back to Paris, Pranzini was interrogated by the Investigating Magistrate, Adolphe Guillot. Freundschuh says that: “Guillot’s feints led Pranzini into needless self-contradictions, stonewalling, and backtracking”. He was asked if he’d ever met Regnault and denied that he had, and at that point Guillot produced Pranzini’s calling card, which had been found in her apartment. He then admitted knowing her, but claimed that their relationship had nothing to do with sex. He probably couldn’t have afforded to pay for her favours, so what were his reasons for visiting her? He’d obviously noticed that her apartment was luxuriously furnished so she clearly had money. Did he hope to charm her out of some of it? Or have sex with her for free?

There had been a series of murders of courtesans, but it was shown that Pranzini had not been in Paris when they were committed, so police attempts to pin them on him fell through. And, whatever else he had done, there was no evidence that he had used violence in the past, and certainly not the sort of violence employed for the three murders. It indicated a calm, almost sadistic streak, especially as the murderer had lingered in the apartment for some time, and had most likely written a fake letter to throw suspicion on Gaston Geissler.

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 originally from Egypt have some bearing on the way he was vilified by sections of the press? The French had been humbled in Egypt when they lost any influence they had to Britain. There had been an uprising against Europeans in Alexandria, and the British quickly bombarded the city, seized the port, and effectively took control of Egypt. Were French resentments at their being pushed into second place in the colonial contest, together with fears of the “other”, responsible for how the Judge portrayed him as a gigolo, a man of low origins from a foreign country who had pretensions above his status and was able to seduce French women to further his ends? Loss of face as a world power, when added to doubts about the virility of French men being raised, made for a potent mixture.

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 France laid the blame for a general decline in manners and morals at the government’s door. Allowing people like Pranzini to pour in from French colonies and other parts of the world was a recipe for disaster, or so it was averred by conservative journalists. Pranzini probably was guilty, but even if he wasn’t it’s unlikely he would have been acquitted. The racial and class odds were stacked against him.

The Courtesan and the Gigolo is a fascinating book, in which Freundschuh has much to say about the nature of policing in Paris in the late-19th century, the development of a popular, sensation-seeking press, the situation of the courtesans, and much more. Politically, France was in turmoil in the  1880s, with General Boulanger attracting large crowds and getting close to overthrowing the Government and having himself elected, not only as President but possibly as a near-dictator. Racism and prejudice were rife. In a few more years Captain Alfred Dreyfus would experience the full force of an establishment hatred of the “other” in a trial that divided French society in a far more serious way than Pranzini’s had done.