On Christmas Eve, 24 December, 1800 (3 Nivose, Year IX, by the French Revolutionary calendar), the First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, his wife, members of his family and friends had plans to attend the opening of Haydn's "Creation" at the Opera (known as the Theatre de la Republique et des Arts) in the rue de Loi, not far away from the Tuileries. The Parisian newspapers had announced that Napoleon was to attend that evening's performance. As Josephine, Napoleon's stepdaughter Hortense and his sister Caroline were preparing to leave the Tuileries for the theater, Jean Rapp remarked to Josephine, who was wearing a magnificent new shawl from Constantinople, "Permit me to make a remark. You are not wearing your shawl tonight with your usual grace." Josephine gayly requested that Rapp, who had served with her husband in Egypt, arrange the shawl in the Egyptian fashion. Napoleon went on ahead in his carriage, accompanied by Jean Lannes, Charles Francois Lebrun, and Jean-Baptiste Bessieres, with an escort of cavalry. Josephine and her party, Hortense, the pregnant Caroline, and Rapp, followed immediately after.
Napoleon's coachman, Germain, who had a few too many glasses of wine on that cold December night, was driving very fast through the narrow streets. As the carriage neared the theater there was a tremendous explosion which shattered the windows of the coach. The second carriage carrying the women was tossed about and one of the horses killed. Tiles, timbers and debris rained down around them. Screaming, the ladies huddled in a corner of the coach, stunned by the force of the detonation. Flying glass had cut Hortense's wrist and her dress was splattered with blood, Josephine fainted, while Caroline, eight months pregnant, managed to remain calm.
A massive bomb, filled with bits of iron, built into a barrel on a horse-drawn cart had gone off in the Rue Saint-Nicaise, where it met the Rue de Malte, almost in front of the Cafe d'Apollon (the site of the explosion is approximately where the statue of Gambetta now stands in the Tuileries Garden). Fortunately it had exploded after Napoleon's carriage had passed and before Josephine's had arrived. Although Napoleon, the intended victim, had survived the blast, perhaps as many as fifty-two bystanders, including a dozen in the cafe, were killed or injured. One grenadier of Napoleon's escort, which was following the coach rather than preceding it as usual, was also injured. Also killed in the explosion was a young girl named Pensel who had been paid twelve sous by the conspirators to hold the horse yoked to the cart while they made their escape. Numerous buildings in the vicinity were also destroyed or damaged.
Somehow Josephine and her party continued on to the Opera, where they were wildly greeted by those in attendance. Napoleon was already in his box. When he saw Rapp enter, the Fist Consul's first word was a worried "Josephine...?" Putting on an air of sang-froid Napoleon and his party remained in their box long enough to show that they wouldn't be intimidated. Napoleon and his party left the Opera before the end of the performance.
Upon their return Napoleon found many of the high government officials had already gathered. Napoleon declared, "You should not have come to see me. You should go immediately to help those poor wretched people..." Fouche arrived and Napoleon shouted that the Jacobins-- "the blood-drinking Septembrists, the Versailles assassins, the brigands of 31 May, the conspirators of Prairial" -- were responsible for the atrocity. Fouche, an ex-Jacobin himself, replied that he believed that the Royalists might be responsible. Napoleon told Fouche, "If I were minister of police in such circumstances, I would hang myself in despair!" While Fouche tracked down the perpetrators of the crime, a list of Jacobins was drawn up and over one hundred of them were eventually exiled (even though, by that time, the actual perpetrators were known).
Napoleon and others had seized on the idea that the Jacobins were responsible due in part to a somewhat similar plot to assassinate him at the Opera by a group of Jacobins, lead by the Italian sculptor and David protégé, Arena, and former Revolutionary Tribunal juryman Topino-Lebrun, five months earlier. They had all bought daggers with which to strike down Napoleon, ala Julius Caesar. Also, a few weeks earlier, a former Jacobin by the name of Chevalier had been arrested after testing what was believed to a similar bomb filled with nails and grapeshot behind the Salpetriere convent.
While the police were rounding up Jacobins, Fouche continued to investigate the crime. Although the horse and cart had been utterly shattered in by the force of the blast, the police reconstructed the cart and horse and canvassed the city for anyone with knowledge of the vehicle or animal. A grain dealer recognized the remains of the horse and cart as those he'd sold to a peddler. The police obtained a description of this mysterious peddler. The liveryman at the stable where the horse had been kept was called in and also gave the police information on the comings and goings of the suspect. The police identified the man as a Chouan, who was already wanted for robbing diligences, known as "Petit Francois". A reward of 12,000 francs was offered for the capture of the criminal and his accomplices. Eventually the police identified "Petit Francois" as Francois-Jean Carbon. After questioning Carbon's relatives, he was arrested at the Notre-Dames-des-Champs convent where he was a boarder. Carbon was questioned and finally named his accomplices. With this information the true culprits were arrested.
The "Infernal Machine" plot had, in fact, been put into action by two ex-nobles, Pierre Robinault de Saint-Regent (or Saint-Rejant), a former French Naval officer and commandant of the Royalist Catholic and Royal Army of the Vendee, and Joseph-Pierre Picot de Limoelan, another veteran of the wars of La Vendee, and also the Chouan insurgent Carbon. Of the assassination attempt Saint-Regent said: "Öthe gunpowder was not as good as it should have been, therefore the explosion took place two to three seconds later than estimated. If not, the First Consul would certainly have been killed. The fault lies with the gunpowder and not the assassin." Apparently the speed of Napoleon's carriage and the fact that the guard was following the coach meant that Saint-Regent--who was injured in the blast--didn't have enough advance warning to correctly time the fuse.
The conspirators had been sent to Paris by the tough Chouan leader, Georges Cadoudal, who was in the pay of the British (Saint-Regent was receiving a British government stipend of 3 sous per diem as well), to deliver the "coup essentiel" against the French leader. Saint-Regent and Carbon, who were dressed in red, the mark of a parricide, were guillotined on the Place de Greve on 21 April, 1801 (1 Floreal).
In May, 1800 Cadoudal had been smuggled back into France with the assistance of the English. With 20,000 pounds sterling of secret service and Royalist funds, Cadoudal was to raise a Chouannerie in Morbihan, subvert French garrisons in port cities and do away with the future Emperor. Georges Cadoudal had met with British government officials about these activities, including the "coup essentiel" to take place in Paris. The diary of William Windham, the English Secretary at War, makes clear that the Foreign Office "perfectly understood the meaning of that and similar expressions." He wrote in his diary for 13 August, 1800: "General Georges [Cadoudal]...predicts that Bonaparte will be cut off before two months are over, though he professes not to know specifically of such intentions, seems to think such a course of proceeding legitimate and has thrown out the idea to Pitt as he has before me." Only a month prior to the assassination attempt on Napoleon, Cadoudal had been involved in the assassination of Audrein, the constitutional bishop of Quimper and a month before that he had also plotted the kidnapping of the Senator Clement de Ris in Touraine (a incident used by Balzac in his novel Une Tenebreuse Affaire).
After the failure of the attack on the First Consul, Cadoudal returned to England, where he continued to receive a government allowance of 8 British pounds per week. Three of the other conspirators, the Chouan officers Andre Joyaux, Coster Saint-Victor, and Louis-Joseph-Benigne de La Haye-Saint-Hilaire also escaped back to England. Joyaux and Saint-Victor--and the French Generals Jean Victor Moreau and Jean Charles Pichegru-- were involved in Cadoudal's 1804 plot to kidnap and murder Napoleon. The plot failed and they were tried and executed, Pichegru died, presumably by his own hand, in prison and Moreau was exiled from France (he eventually died in battle serving with the foreign enemies of France). La Haye-Saint-Hilaire also returned to France and continued his Chouan activities. In September 1807 he was captured after a pitched battle with the gendarmes following the kidnapping of the bishop of Vannes.
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Godechot, Jacques. The Counterrevolution: Doctrine And Action, 1789-1804. Routledge, London; 1972.
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