On February 16, 1899, Felix Faure, the president of the Republic of France, slipped away from his official duties for a rendezvous with his mistress Marguerite, better known as Madame Steinheil, wife of lesser known artist Adolphe Steinheil and a celebrated beauty in Paris.
Perhaps they were merely conversing in one another's arms at the fateful moment, though popular legend has it that Mme. Steinheil was situated in a region further south and was applying herself to the president in what might today be alluded to as a Lewinsky grande plie' when the excitement became too great for President Faure's heart to bear. That organ (his heart) ceased to function, and Madame Steinheil became even more widely celebrated for her charms--or rather, their effect.
But it was another circumstance altogether when, a few years later, another man turned up dead in her bed-- the cuckold, Monsieur Steinheil, her husband--as his corpse was accompanied by the body of Madame Japy, Marguerite Steinheil's mother.
It was a bizarre scene indeed in the bedchamber of Madame Steinheil on the morning of May 31, 1908. Her husband lay strangled to death, her mother also murdered, and the famous enchantress herself was bound and gagged but curiously uninjured. When freed from her bonds, she told of a burglary committed the evening before: four people--three men dressed in robes and a woman with red hair--had attacked the household, robbed them of jewelry and money, killed her husband and mother, and left them all as they were found.
Or at least that was the sole survivor's version of events. The Paris police soon developed a more plausible theory: Mme. Steinheil herself admitted an assassin to kill her spouse, and Madame Japy, attracted to the commotion, by necessity became a second victim. So convinced were the detectives that they sought to persuade a jury of her guilt, and she was put on trial in the Paris Assize Court to determine whether she ought to stretch her neck beneath the guillotine.
From the very beginning, the prosecutors looked to Madame Steinheil's stunning past for evidence of a sinful intent. She was born in Beaucourt, in a Germanic region of France, in 1869. Her father was from a very wealthy family, and her mother was the unusually beautiful daughter of a local innkeeper. Marguerite grew into a very privileged and indulged young lady. She made her debut at 17 and promptly fell in love with a lieutenant, but her hypocritical father refused to bless the love match. She was heartbroken.
When she was 20, her family took her to meet a better marriage prospect, an old painter named Steinheil. She detested him on sight, calling him "a shortish man of at least forty, thin, with small eyes, a dark moustache, and a pointed beard." "No thank you!" she cried. "I'd never dream of marrying a man like that. Why, I'd look as though I were his daughter!"
But Steinheil was deeply in love. He shaved the objectionable graying beard. He invited her to watch him paint cathedral frescoes. He told her about his grand home on the Impasse Ronsin in Paris. She became gradually interested, and one passionless proposal later, they were married in 1890. A month-long Italian honeymoon was to follow, but ten days into the adventure, she was so depressed that she begged him to take her back to her mother. He did, but persuaded her to at least come to Paris to see her fabulous new home. Her family nudged her to Paris and she entered the much-fabled house she'd still not seen. Though it was grand, the newlywed Madame Steinheil found fault; at the sight of all the dust and the smell of fried onions, she burst into tears.
Adolphe Steinheil did what he could to soothe his young bride, and he cajoled her into posing for his miniatures in oil. She came to believe "he liked me chiefly because I am small." After the first few weeks of misery, she realized that her husband was "indifferent, easily satisfied, and compared life to a disagreeable pill which everyone must swallow... our married life was doomed and happiness impossible." She determined to divorce him, but after some long conversations, the Steinheils agreed to remain married but to be "friends" and to live with "full liberty." Remarked she: "No one ever guessed that, although living under one roof, my husband and I were separated. Indeed, this way had many advantages, and even the most united couples should adopt it."
Marguerite found new passions. Many new passions. She opened her salon and her heart, and one of the first to enter was the sculptor Bartholdi, creator of "Liberty Illuminating the World" (the Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor). He was everything her husband was not: a gifted artist who applied himself on a grand scale and a monumentally egotistical man. On one occasion he told her, "The Americans believe that it is Liberty that illumines the world, but, in reality, it is my genius."
And there were other men. One was the romantic, sensuous attorney general, M.B., who called almost every day. Another was M.H., the distinguished author. Then there was the Comte de B.; M. X., the minister of state; M.T., the famous banker who enjoyed bacchanalian orgies in a secret room of his country estate; the painter Bonnat, the composer Massenet, the poet Coppee, diplomats, artists, generals, scientists, and judges--"a whole body of judges." And of course the president.
So when her husband and mother turned up dead, the prosecutors at the Court of Assize put her on trial as much for her wicked ways as for double murder. Needless to say, the newspapermen went rabid and infected the public with feverish speculations. Was there a political motive in the killings? Was the true object of the robbery a set of compromising letters in her possession?
The case set Paris crazy with excitement, and it seems that a majority of men favored acquittal, while the ladies almost universally believed her guilty. Some newspapers lamented the fact that French juries are not sequestered, which would allow the panel to return home at night "where they are subjected to the possible influence of their wives." The courtroom filled to overcrowding and was frequently in an uproar as the state presented its case.
Every thing she'd ever done was brought forth for public inspection, every fault amplified into a felony. The prosecutor called a governess who testified that as a child of five, Marguerite often lied. The prosecutor thought much of this. He also called as a witness her first lover, Lieutenant Sheffer, to testify to their little romance and further establish her amorality at a young age. They set about proving that no money and no jewels were taken from the home as she claimed. They tried to prove that she attempted to finger her servants for the murders.
The prosecution's chief witness was Madame Steinheil's latest lover, a rich merchant named Borderel. But this witness backfired on them by undermining the theory that she slayed her husband to marry Borderel. Marriage was not contemplated between us, Borderel said, concluding his testimony by saying that he didn't think her guilty.
Madame Steinheil then took the stand herself, and she was grilled mercilessly. "You are a great actress," remarked the prosecutor. "You play your part well."
"Alas, it is not acting," she retorted. "I am but a poor woman fighting for her life."
She refused to concede that her stories of the tragic events in her bedchamber were inconsistent. "When a poor weak woman has been for seven hours a day for many days under the badgering of a magistrate, who never ceases to repeat, 'I know you are guilty, you killed your husband and your mother,' when your mind is tortured, your spirit broken, contradictions are not unnatural."
Then another young man, an "unknown in Paris," took the stand and admitted that he participated in the burglary-murders while dressed as a red-haired woman. The defendant fainted. The prosecutors denounced him as insane, but the damage to their case was done. The jury deliberated for 2 1/2 hours and announced its acquittal to thunderous cheers. It was reported that a crowd of tens of thousands stood outside the courthouse to celebrate the result.
Madame Steinheil fled the scene in a motorcar and soon quitted France altogether, choosing London and a new name. She died in 1954 and perhaps faced a higher tribunal than the city of Paris could ever muster.
My Memoirs by Marguerite Steinheil. London: E. Nash, 1912.
"Paris Wild Over Steinheil Mystery," Oakland Tribune, Nov. 29, 1908.
"Confesses He Killed Steinheil; Man Interrupts Trial of 'Red Widow' In Sensational Manner; Accused Woman Near Collapse," Trenton Evening Times, Nov. 4, 1909.
"No Mercy to Woman; Prosecutor at Paris Scores Mme. Steinheil; Painted in Black Colors; Whole Story of Accused Mythical and Overdrawn; Feeling Growing, Nevertheless, That Case Against Prisoner is Lacking, and Prediction of Acquittal Made," Nebraska State Journal, Nov. 13, 1909.
"Steinheil Acquitted; All Volatile France Rings With Cheers at the Verdict," Decatur Daily Review, Nov. 14, 1909.
"Sensational Paris Case," Kingston (Jamaica) Gleaner, Nov. 20, 1909.