The Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise, also known as the Machine infernale plot, was an assassination attempt on the First Consul of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, in Paris on 24 December 1800 (Refer to French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars).
It followed the conspiration des poignards of 10 October 1800, and was one of many Royalist and Catholic plots. Though Napoleon and his wife Josephine narrowly escaped the attempt, five people were killed and twenty-six others were injured.
The name of the Machine Infernale, the “infernal device”, was in reference to an episode during the sixteenth-century revolt against Spanish rule in Flanders. In 1585, during the Siege of Antwerp by the Spaniards, an Italian engineer in Spanish service had made an explosive device from a barrel bound with iron hoops, filled with gunpowder, flammable materials and bullets, and set off by a sawed-off shotgun triggered from a distance by a string. The Italian engineer called it la macchina infernale.
The machine infernale attempt on Napoleon’s life was planned by seven royalist Breton chouans.
- Pierre Robinault de Saint-Régeant (1768-1801): a supporter of Louis XVIII, Saint-Régeant had tried to stir a revolt in western France the previous year, and had publicly torn up Napoleon’s offer of amnesty to the Vendéens.
- Pierre Picot de Limoëlan (1768-1826): the gentleman son of a guillotined royalist nobleman.
- Georges Cadoudal (1771-1804): the giant Chouannerie leader.
- Jean-Baptiste Coster (1771-1804): one of Cadoudal’s ablest lieutenants, known as Saint-Victor.
- The other three plotters were the noblemen Joyaux d’Assas, Jérôme Pétion de Villeneuve, and La Haye-Saint-Hilaire.
Cadoudal had charged Limoëlan and Saint-Régeant with the task of taking Napoleon’s life. They in turn enlisted an older Chouan named François-Joseph Carbon (1756-1801), “a stocky man with a fair beard and a scar on his brow,” who had fought in the wars of the Vendée under the rebel leader Louis-Auguste-Victor, Count de Ghaisnes de Bourmont.
On 26 Frimaire Year IX of the French Republic (17 December 1800) the chouans Carbon, Limoëlan and Saint-Régeant bought a cart and horse from a Parisian grain dealer named Lamballe. Carbon said he was a peddler who would hold a mare for that purpose. Lamballe sold him the cart and mare for two hundred francs. Carbon and his friends drove it to 19, Rue Paradis, near Saint-Lazare, where they had rented a shed. There they spent 10 days hooping a large wine cask to the cart with ten strong iron rings. The idea was to fill the cask with gunpowder, make a machine infernale and explode it near Napoleon as he drove to a public place like the Opera.
On the first of Nivôse (22 December) Saint-Régeant drove to the Place du Carrousel looking for a placement for the machine infernale. He chose a spot in the Rue Saint-Nicaise, north of the Tuileries Palace, toward the rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, where Napoleon had defeated the royalist revolt in 1795, “more or less abreast of what is now the Place du Théâtre Français. The rue de la Loi, (today the Rue de Richelieu), which led to the opera, was almost a continuation of it.” Saint-Régeant decided to place the barrel in the rue St.-Nicaise, toward the rue St.-Honoré, some 20 metres from the Place du Carrousel. One of them would stand watch before the Hôtel de Longueville, at the far side of the square. Thus he would see the carriage when it left the Tuileries, and would be able to signal to the person who, with a long fuse, would ignite the bomb.
On the late afternoon of 3 Nivôse Year IX of the French Republic (Christmas Eve, 24 December 1800) the plotter Carbon, who had made the machine infernale, harnessed the mare to the cart with the big wine cask and with Limoëlan drove it to the Porte Saint-Denis, on the northern outskirts of Paris. In a deserted building, they loaded the cask with gunpowder.
Then they drove it to the rue Saint-Nicaise, north of the palace. Limoëlan crossed over to the place du Carrousel, whence he could signal his two fellow plotters to light the fuse. Saint-Régeant saw a fourteen-year-old girl named Marianne Peusol, whose mother sold fresh-baked rolls and vegetables in the nearby rue du Bac. He paid her twelve sous to hold the mare for a few minutes. At 8:00 pm thinking his police had caught the plotters against him, a relaxed but tired Napoleon reluctantly drove to the Opéra to attend a performance of Joseph Haydn’s oratorio Die Schöpfung (“The Creation”), performed in France for the first time. Bonaparte’s carriage was preceded by a cavalry escort from the Garde consulaire. War Minister Berthier, General Lannes, and Colonel Lauriston, Bonaparte’s aide-de-camp, rode with the First Consul. From their memoirs, a nineteenth-century French psychologist named Garnier deduced that on his way to the Opéra the exhausted Napoleon fell asleep.
As he slept, Napoleon is said to have had a nightmare reliving his defeat at the Tagliamento River by the Austrians three years earlier. While he had been dreaming, Napoleon’s carriage, driven by a drunken man named César, passed the rue Saint-Nicaise and entered the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Limoëlan, standing in the place du Carrousel, panicked and failed to signal Saint-Régeant in the rue Saint-Nicaise, who thus lost a precious minute or two. When the leading grenadiers in Napoleon’s guard rode past him, Saint-Régeant lit the fuse and fled.
The machine infernale exploded, killing the teenage girl Peusol while killing and injuring many other innocent bystanders. Unharmed, Napoleon insisted on continuing to the Opera, where the audience cheered upon learning his escape.
Interpretation of Napoleon’s Dreaming
Sigmund Freud believed that Napoleon was “an extremely sound sleeper” and wrote about this dream. Freud thought that Napoleon had harboured a “fantasy” of the Tagliamento River battle, which was revived by the explosion. To deal with this intruding physical stimulus, the sleeping Napoleon “wove” the sound of the explosion into his dream before waking up. Still dreaming that he was being bombarded by the Austrians, Napoleon woke up crying “Nous sommes minés!” (“We have been mined!”). Freud thought that Napoleon “at last started up with a cry ‘We are undermined!’ … the First Consul wove the noise of an exploding bomb into a battle dream before he woke up from it …”. Freud believed that Napoleon’s dream was an “alarm-clock dream” that weaves external stimuli into its structure in order to maintain the dreamer’s sleep and prevent him from being disturbed by external noises. “Napoleon could sleep on – with a conviction that what was trying to disturb him was only a dream-memory of the thunder of the guns at Arcole.”
In fact, Napoleon had been dreaming of his Tagliamento River battle in March 1797 rather than of his battle at Arcole in November 1796. The river may have unconsciously symbolized his feelings and the horses his ambitions. Napoleon did not sleep after the explosion: “Bonaparte decided to go ahead immediately, without losing one minute in which the enemy could take advantage to kill him.” Freud admitted that he had two different sources for this dream, Garnier and another source, which “did not agree in their account of it,” but he did not name or cite his other source.
Victims of the Blast
Napoleon was badly shaken, but he had escaped the machine infernale blast physically unscathed. When he reached the Opéra he received a standing ovation from the audience. The explosion, however, killed several innocent bystanders. How many is unclear. One scholar believed that “a dozen persons were killed, and twenty-eight were wounded” in the blast. Another thought that “nine innocent people died and twenty-six were injured.” A third scholar wrote that the bomb killed two people and injured six people gravely (and others lightly). The bomb killed the fourteen-year-old girl, Peusol, who had been paid by Saint-Régeant to hold the mare hitched to the cart carrying the bomb, and, of course the old mare. There were also some other medical effects. Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, fainted. Her daughter Hortense’s hand was lacerated. Napoleon’s sister, Caroline Murat, who was in her ninth month of pregnancy, and whose emotional health was less than robust, was severely traumatised. She became anxious and depressed. The son she bore in January 1801, Achille Murat, reportedly suffered from epilepsy. Later Caroline had three more children.
Search for the Suspects and Punishments
Police informers believed that some extreme-left Jacobins known as “les exclusifs” plotted to kill Napoleon with a machine infernale. On 16 and 17 Brumaire Year IX of the French Republic (07-08 November 1800) the Paris police arrested the exclusif plotters, including an agitator named Metge and a chemist named Chevalier.
Metge had published a pamphlet entitled Le Turc et le militaire français (“The Turk and the French Military”), comparing Napoleon to the despotic Roman ruler Julius Cæsar, who was killed by Marcus Brutus, and calling for “the birth of thousands of Bruti to stab the tyrant Bonaparte.” Chevalier had experimented with explosives in a hangar and was suspected of making a bomb to dispatch Napoleon; however, the machine infernale that exploded a month later in the rue Saint-Nicaise was not Chevalier’s bomb.
Napoleon had apparently convinced himself that the attempt on his life had been made by the extreme-left Jacobin exclusifs. Fouché accused the chouans, but Bonaparte would not listen. He was “deeply shocked and very angry.” He believed that he had done wonders for France and that his would-be assassins were ungrateful. An enraged Napoleon told his Conseil d’état, “For such an atrocious crime we must have vengeance like a thunder-bolt; blood must flow; we must shoot as many guilty men as there have been victims.” Napoleon wanted his “Jacobin enemies” removed from Mother France. Even after the real culprits were apprehended by Fouché’s police, Napoleon refused to pardon the innocent ones, insisting that they be deported from France.
130 suspects, hardly any of whom reappeared, were the ransom of the infernal machine. When Fouché held the real culprits, Saint-Rejan and Carbon, when it was known that the attempt of Nivôse was the work of Chouans, it was too late. There was no pardon for the proscribed Jacobins because their proscription had been readily desired. By a subtle precaution they had not been condemned for participation in the affair of the rue Saint-Nicaise, but dealt with under a measure of public safety. Napoleon turned everything to his advantage: public anger, the annihilation of the intransigent Revolutionaries, and the indication that he had implacable enemies among the Royalists. Nor was that all. The very difficulty of making a law to meet special circumstances placed in his hands a ruler’s instrument of incomparable convenience. If the deportation of the “remains of Robespierre,” as they were called, might meet with opposition, it was in the two assemblies responsible for the manufacture of laws. The Tribunat was hostile, the Corps Législatif unfriendly.
Talleyrand suggested the idea of appealing to the Senate, a small, docile, tractable, conservative body, whose deliberations had the advantage of not being public. On the grounds that it would “preserve” the Constitution, the Senate was asked to modify it. The system of Sieyès was so perfect that it could even obliterate itself.
On 14 Nivôse Year IX of the French Republic (04 January 1801) First Consul Bonaparte and his two colleagues Cambacérès and Lebrun exiled 130 Jacobins from France. Their consular decree read: 130 citizens whose names are indicated, suspect of carrying partial responsibility for the terrorist attempt of 3 Nivôse, the explosion of the machine infernale, shall be placed under special surveillance outside the European territory of the Republic. On 15 Nivôse (05 January) the docile Sénat ratified this act by issuing a sénatus-consulte certifying that the consuls’ action preserved the constitution. The 130 unfortunate suspects were deported from France without trial and without the right of appeal. Napoleon increasingly acted as if he had the power to do anything he wished. Two days later, on 17 Nivôse, he named André-François Miot de Mélito, the future comte de Melito, the administrateur général of the two Corsican départements of the Golo and the Liamone, where anti-bonapartiste sentiment was strong and where Bonaparte had suspended constitutional rule. The Christian date was 07 January, Joseph Bonaparte’s 33rd birthday.
Working closely with Fouché, Dubois, the police prefect, had his men collect the remnants of the dead mare and of the cart at the scene of the explosion and question all the Paris horse traders. One of them gave the description of the man who had bought her from him. On 18 Nivôse Year IX (08 January 1801), fifteen days after the explosion in the rue Saint-Nicaise that barely missed Napoleon, Carbon, the man who had made the bomb, was identified by Lamballe – the man who had sold (or rented) the cart to him – as well as by the blacksmith who had shod the mare hitched to the cart. Fouché – who had known the Jacobins’ innocence all along – brought solid proof to Bonaparte that the plotters were the royalist chouans rather than the Jacobin exclusifs. Fouché showed Bonaparte the evidence that the bomb made by the exclusif Chevalier, whom Dubois’ police had accused of having made the machine infernale, was quite different from the bomb that had exploded in the rue Saint-Nicaise.
The police minister, who had plotted with Talleyrand and Clément de Ris to replace Bonaparte, appeared eager to prove his loyalty to the First Consul. Fouché wanted to prove that it was the royalist chouans, not the republican exclusifs, as Napoleon had thought, who had tried to murder his boss. But the First Consul would not listen to his police minister, vowing vengeance against the Jacobins. On 19 Nivôse (09 January) the four conspirateurs des poignards – the Jacobins, Giuseppe Ceracchi, Joseph Antoine Aréna, François Topino-Lebrun and Dominique Demerville – were found guilty of plotting to murder the First Consul and condemned to death. Their desperate protestations of innocence and of being tortured into confessing went unheeded. Napoleon, who had been a fervent Jacobin himself, now turned against his former allies. He still insisted that the Jacobin exclusifs had tried to kill him. “A Royalist attempt would upset his policy of fusion. He refused to believe that; a Jacobin attempt suited him, as conforming to his system of the moment”.
Napoleon turned a deaf ear to Fouché. He would get rid of all those that wished to harm him:
It was a good pretext for annihilating the last remains of the violent factions, but a “purging” like that of Robespierre when he sent the “exagérés” to the guillotine, that of the Convention when they condemned the accomplices of the 1st of Prairial, that of the Directory when they shot Babeuf. At bottom, it was the progressive obliteration of the active Republicans which had made possible the return to order; and there too Bonaparte was carrying on rather than innovating. When their small number had disappeared, no counter-attack from the extreme Jacobins need be feared. There would be Royalist plots, military plots, domestic palace plots. There would be no further Republican conspiracies.
On 21 Nivôse Year IX of the French Republic (11 January 1801) the unfortunate chemist Chevalier, who had not made the machine infernale, was executed by order of First Consul Bonaparte. On 28 Nivôse (18 January), the chouan bomb maker Carbon was arrested. Under torture he gave the names of his fellow plotters, Limoëlan and Saint-Régeant. On 30 Nivôse (20 January), four weeks after the explosion of the machine infernale that missed him, Bonaparte executed the exclusif pamphleteer Metge and two of his friends, even though there was no proof that any of them had been involved in the plot against him.
On 1 Pluviôse Year IX of the French Republic (21 January 1801) Napoleon named the 44-year-old scientist Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal de Chanteloup to the post of France’s interior minister. On 25 January Carbon’s fellow chouan plotter, Saint-Régeant, was arrested by Napoleon’s police. One scholar thought that “Saint-Réjant escaped to the United States and – the least the would-be assassin could do – became a priest.” In fact, Saint-Régeant was executed on 30 Germinal (20 April) at the place de Grève in Paris, where the “regicide” Robert-François Damiens had been savagely executed in 1757, and the man who escaped to the US was his fellow conspirator, Limoëlan. He had expressed feeling guilt about the death of the girl, Marianne Peusol, who had held the horse hitched to the cart. Limoëlan was ordained a priest in 1812, and died in 1826.
In reaction to the attempt on Napoleon’s life, 130 prominent Jacobins had been exiled. On 10 Pluviôse Year IX of the French Republic (30 January 1801) the four “daggers conspirators” – Ceracchi, Aréna, Topino-Lebrun and Demerville – who had been found guilty of plotting to murder the First Consul and condemned to death, were guillotined. Bonaparte had got rid of his remaining Jacobin enemies.
Their deaths, however, did not spell an end to plots against Napoleon. The royalists were still after him, and he saw plotters everywhere, especially in Corsica. The political journalist Roederer claimed that Napoleon told him, “If I die in four or five years, the clock will be wound up and will run. If I die before then, I don’t know what will happen.” One biographer, however, believed that so many Frenchmen needed Bonaparte and feared for his life that their fear made it possible for him to become Emperor of the French within three years.
In Popular Culture
The attack of the rue Saint-Nicaise was written by G. Lenotre, a historian who wrote mainly about the French Revolution and the Reign of terror.
The rue Saint-Nicaise attack also provides the backdrop of “FOR THE KING” a 2010 historical novel by Catherine Delors.
The rue Saint-Nicaise attack was the background of a mission in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Unity. In the mission, the Assassins help stop the radicals from setting off the device and eliminated gunners that aimed to eliminate Napoleon. François-Joseph Carbon appears as the main plotter behind the assassination attempt, and is eliminated by the Assassins shortly after saving Napoleon from Carbon’s men.