September 30, 1891 – This morning, exiled French army General Georges Boulanger (54) shot himself through the head in a spectacular suicide that made headlines in newspapers all over the world.
Georges Boulanger, by famous Paris photographer Nadar (1820-1910)
Can we say this suicide was pure despair, nothing to do with mental instability? I’m not sure. There’s a thin line between the one and the other.
A few years earlier, the charismatic General had made a great career in politics with his populist-nationalist-conservative ideas, aiming at restoring the monarchy and taking revenge at Germany for their 1870 victory over France. He had gathered scores of enthusiast followers, won local elections, and had come close to taking over the country.
But Boulanger also was a very impulsive, emotional man with little self-control. In 1888 he even had fought a saber duel with one of his political opponents (who left Boulanger with a slash wound in the neck). And after having won an important 1889 election, he missed his best chance to actually take power: just because that evening he was too enthusiastically partying in celebration.
Later that year, accused of preparing a coup to overthrow the French government, he went into exile.
Boulanger had also made a mess of his marriage, trying in vain to get his wife to divorce him because he was totally (and publicly) infatuated with his mistress.
His great love was Marguerite de Bonnemains (born Crouzet), a former Comédie-Française actress and ex-wife of the Count de Bonnemains. She had joined the General in his exile in Brussels, Belgium.
Marguerite de Bonnemains-Crouzet was photographed by Nadar, too
Unfortunately she got ill with tuberculosis – the feared “consumption” disease that in the 19th century could be fatal. On 15 July 1891, the young woman (35) died in the General’s arms. He was inconsolable.
Marguerite was buried in the Brussels Ixelles cemetery. On her tombstone, Boulanger put the inscription “A bientôt”: “See you soon”.
As testified later by friends and servants, he became deeply depressed: hardly eating, he began to look worn and emaciated. He visited Marguerite’s grave every day, making sure it was continuously covered with fresh flowers. After one failed suicide attempt, friends kept a close eye on him.
But on this September day, while standing at Marguerite’s tomb in plain view of his coachman, an accompanying friend and some grave diggers, he suddenly drew his army revolver and shot himself through the temple.
When later his body was undressed to be laid out, the undertaker discovered that Boulanger had a (now bloodied) photo of Marguerite pinned to his undershirt.
He left a last will and various farewell letters, including one to his wife in France that he had addressed to “Madame the Widow Boulanger”. This proved that his dramatic suicide was not as impulsive as it had looked.
In the News
Because Boulanger was a political celebrity, his death was covered in a way that was almost as dramatic as the suicide itself:
In the wake of Boulanger’s death, among his many followers in France there also was a really curious tendency to idealize and romanticize the love between the General and his Marguerite.
Just see this popular picture commemorating the couple:
Others, especially outside France, were much less given to idealization.
Here is how a righteous American newspaper covered Boulanger’s suicide: “Vanity and Women the Cause of a Wasted Life”.
Boulanger was buried right where he had killed himself: at the side of his beloved Marguerite.
On the tombstone, below the “See you soon”, a new inscription was added. It looks like it was aimed at supporting the idea that this had been a romantic suicide, one inspired by pure love and loss.
The added inscription read “Ai-je bien pu vivre 2 mois et demi sans toi?” meaning “Was I really able to live 2 and a half months without you?”
The tombstone of the two lovers can still be seen at the Ixelles cemetery in Brussels today:
Many questions remain unanswered here. Can we say, as some suggested at the time, that Boulanger was temporarily possessed by some kind of deep depression or even a bout of insanity? Or should we assume that his suicide was perhaps more the result of regret over his political mistakes, and in fact a fairly rational decision? I guess we will never know.
Another question that interests me: was this suicide followed by copycat ones, as is so often the case with celebrity suicides today? Were there other Frenchmen in the 1890s who, when mourning the loss of a loved one, thought it best to follow the widely-advertised “romantic” example of General Boulanger?
I cannot help thinking here also of Goethe’s Werther, the well-known literary case of love-inspired suicide. Between 1775-1800, this book caused one of the first instances of a wave of copycat suicides.
In the case of Boulanger, given the romantic idealization of his love and his death, I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar happened. But to be honest, I just don’t know.
- The Paris newspaper Le Petit Journal gave a description of Boulanger’s death and its aftermath, with many details: such as the fact that the Catholic authorities, in line with established church policy in suicide cases, refused to allow a formal religious ceremony.
A somewhat rough English translation of this 1891 Petit Journal coverage is online (of all places) at the site of the Marxist Internet Archive: Suicide of General Boulanger.
- The American newspaper clipping is from the Illinois newspaper The Rock Island Argus, 1 October 1891, online at the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections site of the University of Illinois library.
- The photo of the Brussels grave of General Georges Boulanger and Marguerite de Bonnemains was taken in 1994 by Dutch blogger Androom for his celebrity graves website The Androom Archives.