The “vitriolic moment”

The assault, which involves throwing sulfuric acid in a victim’s face, entered the French public eye at the end of the XIXe century. Generating the attention of the press and the courts, this “déclassé” crime is underpinned by strong gender and class stereotypes.

An expression such as “vitriolic portrait” is enough to make one hear the numerous lexical resonances which, since the middle of the XVIIIe century, make sulfuric acid a specific and formidable weapon. However, it is not, or not only, to the analysis of a metaphor that Karine Salomé engages here, but rather to the study of a category of crimes involving this product.

A significant progression

These crimes increased sharply from the 1870s, polarizing the attention of the press and the courts of the Belle Époque, then declined after the First World War, before experiencing, much later, occasional resurgences, for example in the United Kingdom in the 2010s or in certain emerging countries (notably in Asia), where 90% of vitriol attacks are concentrated today. How can we interpret such a chronology and geography?

The book only partially answers this question, for obvious reasons of sources and scales. Focused for three quarters on France from 1850 to 1910, it only mentions the contemporary situation as an extension, in the last chapter. This limit set, its structure and its conclusions nevertheless offer an original and fertile entry key for the history of crime, the media and gender relations, starting from what the author does not hesitate to define as a “vitriolic moment”.

Its reality is first statistical. If vitriol could have been used marginally in cases of poisoning (31 cases recorded between 1814 and 1939), it is especially in the much more spectacular form of “vitriolage” that it invested the public horizon in the last third of the XIXe century. It was in 1873 that this term became synonymous with “criminal aggression which aims to throw sulfuric acid in a person’s face with the aim of disfiguring them.”

We thus move from an essentially technical semantic field – “vitrioler” consists, in the industry, of “adding vitriol” – to a criminal category. In truth, the figures in this area remain vague, because “vitriol cases” remain drowned, for the justice system, in the category of “intentional assault and battery” (article 309 of the Penal Code). It is therefore, in addition to the judicial archives, to the press that we must resort to in order to list them more precisely.

This imperfect source nonetheless attests to a significant progression, even if the orders of magnitude remain modest: 16 cases of vitriol between 1816 and 1869, 20 between 1870 and 1879, 148 between 1880 and 1889, 180 in the 1890s, then the decline began in the 1900s, which counted “only” 92 cases, before the statistics stabilized at around thirty cases per decade (34 between 1910 and 1919, 33 between 1921 and 1929, 35 between 1930 and 1939). In all, there were 488 cases between 1817 and 1943.

“Conflicts of inter-knowledge”

Is the media emotion disproportionate? In fact, this supposed inflation of vitriol coincides with the rise of the mass press, fond of spectacular news items and willingly tempted by overinterpretation, even if the “serious” bourgeois press (the Journal of debates Or Gil Blasin particular) is as interested in it as the sensationalist popular press (The Little Parisian).

But vitriol attacks are not just a media fantasy, because through these cases, it is the gender and class relations of the first decades of the Third Republic that are being questioned here. “Vitriol attacks,” notes the author, “appear as the result of complex logics, made up of an interweaving of emotions and plural feelings, material concerns and affective considerations.”

Cheap and freely available in drugstores, vitriol seems to be the “poor man’s weapon” par excellence, used for a mediocre and unimportant crime: an aggressor lurking in the shadows waits for his victim to throw the contents of a bowl or vial in his face. In this way, it is the preferred agent of “conflicts of inter-acquaintances” – neighborhood dramas, workshop disputes, domestic jealousies, family disagreements, etc. Only one category takes on a little height, both in statistics and in the social imagination: that of vitriol for the sake of romantic spite.

It then joins the cohort of “crimes of passion”, which has been growing steadily over the course of the XIXe century, and a godsend for the tabloid press. It was in this register that vitriol experienced one of its rare major cases, with the trial, in August 1880, of Mme de Tilly, a 35-year-old aristocrat from the provincial minor nobility who had attacked her husband’s mistress with vitriol: the social status of the accused, her status as a legitimate wife, her dignity in court earned the case sustained media attention, as well as the indulgence of the court.

It is true that even if, according to Karine Salomé, “magistrates are reluctant to take into account the destitution and suffering expressed by the vitriolic women”, leniency is the rule of popular juries. The legitimacy of wounded love is not enough to sublimate the gesture, which remains a downgraded crime. Barbey d’Aurevilly can thus reproach Mme Tilly of having “taken revenge like a washerwoman”, and the press more widely accuses this worldly woman of having fed the “contagion by example”, perhaps to better exonerate herself from her own role as a propagator.

The construction of the gender stereotype

This class contempt is articulated with a narrowly gendered perception, since this “mediocre” act is thought of, above all, as a woman’s crime. The prejudice is certainly partly supported by statistics, but only in the category of “crime of passion”: 75% of the cases recorded between 1870 and 1943 concerned women, while crimes of passion as a whole were 90% committed by men.

The argument of the “poor man’s weapon” is therefore articulated with perfectly banal gender stereotypes. Under the misogynistic pens, the use of vitriol allows for the almost exemplary illustration of the faults commonly attributed to the “weaker sex”, cunning or hysteria, but always in the same mediocre or degraded mode.

The main originality of these cases is undoubtedly the obvious disproportion between this default weapon and its spectacular result, even if acid causes few direct deaths – but the disfigurement, physical suffering, disability, sometimes for life, seem hardly less formidable. From this point of view, one can wonder if the author would not have been interested in thinking differently about the organization of her argument, by emphasizing this aspect of the subject, which is undoubtedly the main cause of media and public interest, and closely participates in the construction of the gender stereotype.

Vitriol for the sake of love delves into the heart of intimate wounds, whether it is to make the rival ugly or to disfigure the unfaithful seducer. This attack on the face reintroduces the vision of a woman entirely defined by the body and its impulses, and who, in this way, “arrogates to herself the right, formerly vested in the State, to mark bodies”. Vitriol is thus similar to the most archaic forms of punishment, at a time when the vision of torture (executions, slaughterhouses) is relegated far from view, to the margins of the city.

Vitriolic and oil-producing

The system of representations that develops around vitriol is also not devoid of underlying political issues, and it is a merit of the work to move with tact and relevance between these different registers to highlight their inextricable entanglement. From a weapon of the poor, vitriol easily slips into that of the proletariat, even if concrete examples of the use of sulfuric acid during episodes of strikes or revolution are extremely rare: “Vitriol is now associated with the offensive arsenal of the people and constitutes one of the symbols of their cruelty,” notes the author.

With the Commune, this threat became feminized, by assimilating vitrioleuse and pétroleuse, which made it possible to fantastically combine two forms of supposed “savagery”, that of the people and that of women. The growth of vitriolages in the first decades of the Third Republic and the feminization of their representations therefore took place under the shadow of a particularly traumatic episode for the male bourgeois elites, attentive to circumscribing the awakening of the threat.

The interest of Karine Salomé’s book is precisely to open up such perspectives, without artificially separating the discourse “on” vitriol and its metaphorical uses, from the criminal practice itself. It is perhaps in the very last part of the book that the approach finds its limit. The rapid decline of vitriol attacks after the First World War is not fully explained, which amounts to saying that the specificities of the “vitriol moment”, from 1870 to 1914, are not entirely elucidated.

Vitriol against women

The last chapter, devoted to contemporary vitriol attacks, could have served as a point of support, since it presents us with a situation radically different from that of France in the XIXe century, with a majority of “honor crimes” (in mafia circles, in particular) or crimes with sexual implications, but, this time, massively against women.

This observation suggests that gender domination relationships are still very patriarchal, while the “feminine” vitriol in France XIXe century would rather seem to imply a form of revolt against them. To support such a hypothesis, it would perhaps have been necessary to examine more closely the residual cases in the XXe century, as well as a more in-depth analysis of extra-European situations.

In wanting to explore all the potentialities of vitriol and to show the difficulty of subsuming them under a single or simple explanation, the historian offers a rich work, which refuses to confine itself to a “strong” thesis, but at the cost, sometimes, of a certain interpretative timidity, or even a conceptual aporia. Basically, is the product sufficient in itself to make sense, at any time and in any place? In view of the data presented, one would be tempted to conclude in the negative, which does not detract from the interest of the approach.