Was Émile Zola Murdered? And the Dreyfus Affair that Never Went Away

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Was Émile Zola Murdered? And the Dreyfus Affair that Never Went Away
Almost a century ago on September 29th, 1902, Émile Zola died in the early hours of the morning in his house at 21 bis Rue de Bruxelles in the 9th arrondissement of Paris. Zola had lived there with his wife Alexandrine from 1889 until his death, and it was where he wrote his infamous “J’Accuse…!” on January 12th, 1898. It was a cold, wet night and a coal fire had been lit in their bedroom. As always, the windows were closed and due to numerous death threats after the publication of “J’Accuse…!” on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore, their bedroom door was locked. They were both still awake at 3 am, feeling unwell, but Zola believed the cause to be indigestion and dissuaded Alexandrine from calling the servants. Zola early in his career (C) Étienne Carjat – Museum of Photographic Arts, Public Domain It proved to be a fatal decision. They were both being slowly poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes from the coal fire. Zola had attempted to rise from the bed but had fallen to the floor and Alexandrine had lost consciousness still lying in bed. Six hours later at 9am, the servants forced the bedroom door. Zola, despite 20 minutes of artificial respiration by a doctor, could not be saved but Alexandrine, still unconscious, recovered later in a clinic. The immediate and widespread consensus was that Zola had been murdered. With his article “J’Accuse…!” and his vociferous attempts to clear Dreyfus, Zola had made many powerful enemies, both in the military and with the nationalist right who were so often rabidly anti-semitic. Front page cover of the newspaper L’Aurore for Thursday 13 January 1898, with the open letter J’Accuse…!, (C) Émile Zola – Scan of L’Aurore, Public Domain In an attempt to calm down speculation, an inquest was ordered and specialists called to inspect the fire and chimney in Zola’s bedroom. Despite fires being lit, guinea pigs surviving being left in the room overnight, nothing significant was found, and the coroner’s verdict proclaimed that Zola had died of natural causes. A death bed confession in 1927 by an anti-Dreyfusard stove fitting contractor, was published in a French newspaper in 1953. In his confession he stated that while fixing the neighboring roof, he and his workmates had deliberately blocked the chimney of Zola’s house, removing the blockage the following morning. Many of Zola‘s biographers have accepted this more than plausible version of Zola’s death, but as in so many conspiracy theories, the definitive truth is unlikely to ever be known.

Lead photo credit : Portrait of Émile Zola. Unknown author. Public Domain

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After some dreary years in the Civil Service, Marilyn realized her dream of living in Paris. She arrived in Paris in December 1967 and left in July 1969. From there she lived in Mallorca, London, Oman, and Dubai, where she moved with her husband and young son and worked for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and freelanced for Emirates Woman magazine. During this time she was also a ground stewardess for Middle East Airlines. For the past 18 years they've lived on the Isle of Wight.


  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2021-12-02 08:53:28
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Thank you for this excellent essay, Marilyn, and the information about the new Dreyfus Museum in the Zola home. I look forward to visiting during my next trip to Paris. André Salmon also published a book on the Dreyfus Affair in 1934. It may be a signification publication date now that I see in your article that Dreyfus died in 1935.


  • Keith Van Sickle
    2021-11-25 06:10:47
    Keith Van Sickle
    A very good book on the subject of Zola's death is Assassins ! by Jean-Paul Delfino. It describes both the life and death of Zola, and the anti-Semitic fervor of the day, in alternating chapters.


    • marilynbrouwer@hotmail.com
      2021-11-26 11:07:53
      Thanks Keith for your suggestion. It is a book I haven't read yet but will! A fascinating subject that still resonates.


  • Hazel Smith
    2021-11-25 01:48:56
    Hazel Smith
    A great article on Zola and the Dreyfus affair. It was a pivotal point in history. The Dreyfus case divided friends and family for years. I appreciated how the journalist's dog in Lupin was called J'accuse.


    • Marilyn Brouwer
      2021-11-26 11:10:53
      Marilyn Brouwer
      Thanks Hazel for your comment. The more we read about French history, (especially the artists) the more I wish I could have lived through all of these times but still be alive now!