Did You Know: was Emile Zola Murdered?

Did You Know: was Emile Zola Murdered?

Hazel Smith unearths the intriguing story of the French novelist’s untimely demise

One of France’s most prominent writers, Émile Zola died from carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 62. And some believe his death wasn’t accidental.

Zola on his deathbed © wikimedia

At 9.30am on September 29, 1902, when agitated servants at Zola’s Paris house received no answer to their frantic knocks, they found Zola half-lying in bed, warm but quite dead. The assumption was that he had succumbed in the night to the poisonous gas.

Madame Zola survived and recounted that during the night she and her husband had similarly suffered from violent headaches and cramping. However, believing they had food poisoning, Zola’s last words to his wife were, “Tomorrow we will be healed”.

The day before, the Zolas had returned from their summer home to their address on Rue Bruxelles. A small coal fire was lit in their bedroom grate to dispel the autumn chill. It was believed that inexpert repairs to their chimney had caused a blockage, but while Zola’s death was ruled accidental, there were inconsistencies.

Read More: Émile Zola’s Paris: Following in the Author’s Footsteps

Alfred Dreyfus, whom Zola defended in his famous open letter entitled J’Accuse © Bibliothèque de France

A celebrated but controversial writer, Zola was emblematic of massive division in French society. In 1898, he published an open letter to France’s president titled, J’Accuse…! His articulate letter dismantled, point-by-point, the case against Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer of Jewish heritage who was convicted on trumped-up charges of treason and incarcerated at Devil’s Island. J’Accuse transformed the Dreyfus affair into a cause célèbre, further widening the rift between Republicans on one side and those with pro-army, anti-Semitic tendencies on the other.

Zola himself was dragged into court on charges of libel. Constant threats against him led some, including his mistress, to believe his death was an assassination. After all, his dogs, Fanfan and Pinpin, were unaffected by the carbon emissions from the novelist’s fireplace, as were two almost-sacrificial guinea pigs which were used in a replication of the fatal incident. The attending police commissioner, Cornette, admitted, post-retirement, that he had suspected foul play at the time – but the case has been quickly closed to avoid any further agitation in the Alfred Dreyfus case.

Read More: Life in Les Halles: Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris

Zola’s grave in the Montmartre cemetery, Paris

A clean sweep
Despite the rumours, the official explanation was maintained for 50 years, until the deathbed confession of the chimney sweep. Henri Buronfosse, a confirmed member of The League of Patriots, a far-right organisation known for their anti-Semitic zeal, admitted that while working on the roof of Zola’s apartment building, he had sealed the chimney in revenge for J’Accuse, and without being seen, he’d returned to clear it early the next day. Buronfosse’s confidante spilled the story to the press in 1953. Even then, Buronfosse’s name was kept out of the papers until 1978. His confession seemed authentic, but by this time, the trail was cold.

No concrete evidence was ever produced to prove Zola’s death was murder. However, circumstances behind the writer’s death still create speculation to this day.

Lead photo credit : Self-portrait of Emile Zola

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After experiencing an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay, Hazel Smith is currently a mature student of art history at the University of Toronto. Blogger and amateur historian, she has also written for the online travel guide PlanetWare.com and for davincidilemma.com. Fascinated with the lives of the Impressionists, Hazel has made pilgrimages to the houses and haunts of the artists while in France. She is continually searching for the perfect art history mystery to solve. She maintains the blogs Smartypants Goes to France and The Clever Pup (http://the-clever-pup.blogspot.ca)

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  • Andy Paul
    2023-05-23 03:43:17
    Andy Paul
    Wasn't this suggested in the French series Paris Police 1900?