On this day in 1899, French President Félix Faure died. This is one of those events I was in two minds about mentioning, because someone dying is rarely good. But the circumstances surrounding his death, speculation about the circumstances and later, related story are morbidly fascinating. A word of warning, In today’s post, Faure is not the only one who will die in unusual circumstances.
Faure became President rather unexpectedly in 1895 after the previous President resigned. He was chosen as the least offensive candidate. France was, at that time, a fairly new republic and he felt he was being rather looked down on by the leaders of other European countries. He was a man who took great care of his appearance, often changing his clothes three times a day. He thought a special presidential uniform would lend him more gravitas on state occasions. What he wanted was a hat with white plumes, a blue coat embroidered in gold with oak leaves, laurels and pansies, with trousers to match. For evening wear, he would swap the trousers for white satin breeches, silk stockings and silver buckled shoes. Luckily, before he ever wore it, someone pointed out that it was all a bit much. They said it might make him look like he fancied himself as a dictator.
In 1897 he began an affair with Marguerite Steinheil, whose husband he had commissioned to paint his portrait. On February 16th 1899 she was visiting him at the Elysée Palace. The two of them were alone in a drawing room when the President’s aides heard screams. They entered the room to find Faure lying of the sofa struggling to breathe. He died later that evening and was found to have suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. There were soon rumours that Marguerite had been found half naked, that the president had one of his hands entangled in her hair and she had to be cut free. It is generally thought that he suffered his fit at a critical juncture while they were engaged in sexual activity and widely reported that she was fellating him at the time. A French newspaper was quick to report that: “Felix Faure passed away in good health, indeed from the excess of good health…”. The incident led to a lot of black humour and play on words involving the French word ‘pompe’. Mme Steinheil was dubbed ‘la pompe funèbre’. ‘Pompes funèbres’ means ‘the funeral care business’ but pompe funèbre means ‘funeral pump’. He also received the epitaph “Il voulait être César, il ne fut que Pompée” which means “He wished to be Caesar, but ended as Pompey”. Or, if you read it another way “He wished to be Caesar, but ended up being blown.”
In case you’re feeling a bit sorry for Faure, in 1898, he was asked to give a speech to the French auto-industry which was, at the time, the largest in the world. Here is what he said: “Vos voitures sont bien laides et sentent bien mauvais!” – “Your cars are very ugly and they smell very bad”. In case you’re feeling sorry for Mme Steinheil, this happened in 1908:
Her husband and her stepmother were both found murdered in her apartment. Her husband strangled, her stepmother suffocated. Marguerite herself was found gagged tied to the bed. She claimed that four people in black robes, three bearded men and a woman with red hair, had broken in, attacked them and stolen some jewellery. There were no signs of a break-in and Marguerite was tied only loosely. She later changed her story and said that it had been the work of a servant. A pearl from a necklace that she had reported stolen was found in his pocketbook. But it was later established that she had put it there. After that she tried to blame one of her husband’s models and then the son of her housekeeper., but both had alibis. A jeweller came forward to say that Mme Steinheil had sent him some of the stones that she claimed had been stolen to be reset. The judge called her stories ‘a tissue of lies’ and yet somehow, she was acquitted. No one could properly establish how or why she might have committed the murders. It was supposed that she may have had an accomplice, but no one else was ever arrested. Mme Steinheil moved to England under an assumed name and remarried. The murders remain unsolved.