Ravachol (François Claudius Koenigstein-Ravachol)

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François Claudius Koenigstein-Ravachol was born into gnawing poverty in the small town of Saint-Chamond near the French industrial city of Saint-É tienne in 1859. His father was a Dutch mill hand who abandoned his French wife and four children. Ravachol's mother worked in a silk-throwing factory. With three siblings, the boy was handed over at age eight to a succession of farmers, for whom he worked caring for their animals. Until he was eleven, Ravachol attended primary school, where he was embarrassed by having clothes so shabby that he looked like a small beggar. He went to church in what remained a region of relative fidelity to the Catholic Church, receiving his first communion at the age of eleven.

As a boy and then a young man, Ravachol worked here and there where he could find employment, in a mine and in textile workshops, once joining other workers on strike. He refused to work again for one employer to whom he had complained that the pressure to keep on the job constantly left him no time to eat or to go to the bathroom. He went to Lyon in search of work and joined a study group that read socialist and anarchist newspapers and brochures and listened to speakers. Gradually he became an activist, and then a brawler. He was now eighteen. After reading Eugène Sue's The Wandering Jew, a popular novel published in 1844–1845 about the poor neighborhoods of Paris, Ravachol lost his religious faith and joined some of his friends at a socialist gathering. But socialists believed in political participation, and Ravachol turned toward anarchism, convinced that political participation only propped up the corrupt, oppressive state. After an arrest (for having helped a young woman exact horrible revenge on a lover by providing the sulfuric acid she threw into his eyes) Ravachol turned to the illegal sale of alcohol, grave robbing, and counterfeiting in order to obtain money for his sick mother. And finally he became a murderer: in 1891 he killed a hermit reputed to have a fortune hidden in his strange house. Ravachol fell under suspicion and was arrested but managed to escape the police in Saint-Étienne as he was being taken to prison.

Ravachol fled to Paris in July 1891. In the capital, the name of the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876) still resounded and the writing of another Russian, Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921), a man of peace who had coined

the chilling phrase of strategy "Propaganda by the Deed," was well known. Ravachol lived with a couple in the industrial suburb of Saint-Denis and took an alias. They introduced him to anarchists. Police had recently fired on anarchists demonstrating on the Boulevard Clichy on the western edge of the city. Several had been wounded, three put on trial, and two condemned to long prison sentences. Ravachol decided to blow up a police office and in March 1892 constructed a bomb of dynamite and pieces of iron. But he was unsuccessful. And so Ravachol decided to kill a magistrate involved in the trial of the anarchists, but, here too, he was foiled by being unable to get

into the building on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Next, he targeted another magistrate from the trial and this time was successful. The bomb he placed on the Rue de Clichy on 27 March wounded seven people. On the way home, Ravachol stopped in a restaurant called Le Véry, on the Boulevard Magenta. He engaged a waiter in conversation about anarchism, and the employee remembered the scar Ravachol had on his left hand. Three days later, he was arrested, although hardly with ease. It took ten policemen to subdue the brawler from the Loire.

Condemned to death for the murder of the hermit near Saint-Étienne, as well as for several other killings he probably did not commit, Ravachol went to the guillotine on 11 July 1892. He turned to the crowd of onlookers and shouted "Long live anarchy!" Several days later, a bomb destroyed Le Véry, giving rise to the pun that served as an anarchist signature: Vérification.

After his death, some sympathizers began to compare their martyr Ravachol to Jesus Christ. Anarchists sang "La Ravachole" to the tune of a song of the left during the French Revolution, "Ça ira" (It will be):

In the Great City of Paris
Live the well-fed bourgeois
And the destitute who have empty stomachs
But they have long teeth.
Dance the Ravachol.
Long live the sound of explosions!
So it will be

Dynamite became the symbol of these anarchists.

Let's dance the Ravachol, Long live the sound,
Let's dance the Ravachol, long live the sound of the explosion!
It will be, it will be,
All the bourgeois will taste the bomb,
It will be, it will be
These bourgeois, these bourgeois, we'll blow them up!

In his "Eulogy for Ravachol," Paul Adam, an anarchist editor, warned that "the murder of Ravachol will open an era." And it did. Among other attacks, an anarchist stabbed a Serbian minister visiting Paris. One anarchist writer outraged public opinion by provocatively stating, "What do the victims matter if the gesture is beautiful?" Parisian anarchists hotly debated the strategy of "Propaganda by the Deed." Émile Henry on 12 February 1894 tossed a bomb into the Café Terminus next to the Gare St. Lazare, horribly wounding a number of clients. He, too, went on trial for his life and was guillotined several months later. When an Italian anarchist stabbed President Sadi Carnot to death that same year in Lyon, the killer proudly proclaimed the act as vengeance for the execution of Ravachol. Gradually, however, anarchist attacks subsided. Some workers and radicals favored syndicalism, others political contention-through reform socialist or revolutionary socialist parties.

See alsoAnarchism; Anarchosyndicalism; Bakunin, Mikhail; Kropotkin, Peter.


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Sonn, Richard D. Anarchism and Cultural Politics in Fin-de-Siecle France. Lincoln, Neb., 1989.

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John Merriman