A Night at the Opera

The evening of 14 January 1858 was bustling in Paris. The crowds were present and packed for a procession from Napoleon III, the then Emperor of the Second French Empire and the nephew and direct heir of Napoleon I. This evening he was due to attend, alongside his cousin and fiancée, Princess Mathilde Bonaparte a performance of Rossini’s William Tell at the Opéra Le Peletier. His arrival was scheduled for half past eight in the evening and the crowds were eager to witness the procession as it passed. For some the mounted cavalry stirred deep rooted feelings of patriotic fervor, for others the crowds provided an excellent mechanism for petty thefts and larcenies. For others still, the crowd served to provide excellent cover. A few hours before the Emperor was due to arrive with his retinue the Parisian police had spotted an individual in the crowd they had been searching for some time. Shortly after 7pm a police inspector by the name of Hérbert spotted Giovanni Andrea Pieri lurking amongst the gathered crowds near the opera house on the Rue Le Peletier. Acting swiftly, he and some constables moved behind the angular frame of the Italian, and roughly held his arms to his side, before taking him into custody. Only a few years prior on 28 April 1855, there had been an assassination attempt on the Emperor by another Italian by the name of Giovanni Pianori who had managed to unleash a few shots from the revolvers he had carried which had ultimately failed to find their mark. Pieri was well known to the police having immigrated to France as a youth, served in the French Foreign Legion, and been resident in Paris for years. In 1848, Pieri had taken part in the Paris Revolution, and had returned to his native Italy to take part in the first Italian War of Independence. A noted and known radical, he was aggressive in his demands for Italian independence, and his distinctive features were easily identified by the sharp eyed Parisian police inspector. When arrested, Pieri was found to be in possession of a loaded six shot revolver, a German passport in another name, and an explosive device the likes of which the police had never seen. Staying silent on the threat so as not to create alarm, the police assumed that the radical was acting alone, and that no other threats were present. As it transpired, Pieri was not alone in his plans, and the actions that were to occur later that evening would lead to an international crisis, the downfall of a government, and unleash onto the global stage a device designed and delivered from Birmingham, UK.

At 8:30pm the Imperial procession appeared on the Boulevard des Italiens heading towards the opera house. At its head was a company of lancers, the tricolour wafting from their steel. Behind them came the Emperor in his steel walled carriage, with his fiancée bringing up the rear, some thirty feet behind. As the group turned left onto the Rue Le Peletier where Pieri had earlier been detained, and came to a stop in front of the opera house, an explosion ripped through the evening, felling both horses and riders. Shortly afterwards a second explosion rang out. This was quickly followed by a third. Shouts and screams filled the streets as above the crowd windows broke and glass shards exploded outwards. As the smoke cleared, it was found that over one hundred people had been injured, and eventually between eight and twelve would die. Although Princess Mathilde had been thrown from her carriage, she was found on the street covered in blood, but unharmed. As too was the Emperor save for a small cut to his nose, who was able to step out of his carriage unaided. In the panic, and smoke, and chaos, the would be assassins had managed to slip away. For some it was not their first escape.

L’attentat de Felice Orsini contre Napoléon III by H. Vittori Romano, 1862

One of those involved that fateful January night was Felice Orsini (or Orso Teobaldo Felice Orsini to give his full name). Born in Mendola in the Papal States (which were later to become Italy) on 10 December 1819, Orsini was the son of an Italian nationalist, and was to become an ardent nationalist revolutionary himself. Giacomo Andrea Orsini was originally from Lugo and had been an officer in the Napoleonic Russian campaign of 1812, and following the conflict found employment as a member of the papal police, whilst at the same time continuing as a Carboneria, or member of the Carbonari, who were active in Italy between 1800 and 1831 and sought Italian unification and independence. Originally from Florence, Orsinis’ mother Francesca Ricci was to die when he was only twelve years old in 1831. Following the death of his mother, the young Felice was moved to the home of his uncle Orso Orsini in Imola in Northern Italy. Far more conservative than his brother, Orso had been made wealthy by the cultivation and trade of hemp for use in ropes, and raised his nephew in both an orthodox and strict environment. It seems that the way in which Orsini was raised was not strict enough however. At the age of 16, on 5 July 1836, Orsini was involved in a fatal shooting. The family cook, Domenico Spada had come across a teenage Orsini playing with a revolver that belonged to his uncle Orso. According to the record of the events as described by Orsini in his later memoirs, he had been so surprised by Spada that he accidentally discharged the revolver at close range resulting in the death of the unfortunate cook. Whatever the truth of this, Orisini soon gathered enough of his wits to flee both the scene and the home of his uncle. Initially charged in absentia with voluntary homicide, luckily for Orsini his uptight uncle was friends with the then Bishop of Imola, Mastai Ferretti. Ferretti as well as being the local bishop was highly enough regarded by the Catholic church that he would later go on to become Pope Pius IX. Perhaps because of the ministrations of uncle Orso, or the high standing of Giacomo in the papal police force, Felice was able to return to the home of his uncle and face a sentence of six months in prison for the accidental murder of the family cook. Following proclamation of the sentence, the Orsini family sent a plea to Pope Gregory XVI requesting clemency on the proviso that the troublesome Felice entered the seminary. Clemency was granted, and although Orsini completed some religious training, he did not become a priest. After a few years in the seminary Orsini first returned to his fathers’ home in Mendola, before again returning to the home of his uncle Orso.

Following the completion of both school and university studies, Orsini graduated and began to practice as a lawyer and became involved in the Italian nationalist movement. At the time of Orsini, Italy as we know it today did not exist. It was not until the Risorgimento that Italy as a country came to be. Before the unification, Italy consisted of a collection of independent states, including those controlled by the papacy. With the end of direct Napoleonic rule in 1815, Italy would be occupied by a variety of foreign nation states, including the Austrians, before it became a nation state in 1861. Orsini was involved in the radical Carbonari movement which consisted primarily of the middle classes and intellectuals who inspired by the French Revolution sought to enact Italian unification by the violent overthrow of all foreign occupiers, including Napoleon III. Whilst still practicing as a lawyer, Orsini founded a secret society by the name of Congiura Italiana dei Figli della Morte (Italian Conjuration of the Sons of Death). Although vaguely sinister in tone, the society probably served as little more than a debating shop, however this did not prevent his arrest. After spending several years in custody, Orsini was released under a general amnesty for political prisoners, which was declared by the bishop who had interceded in his earlier shooting, who had now become Pope Pius IX.

Following his release from Civita Castellana in Lazio in 1846, Orsini moved to Florence which was the birth place of his mother. Here Orsini continued with his earlier Carbonari activities as well as operating a legal practice and in 1848 joined Livio Zambeccari in the first Italian War of Independence. Lasting from March 1848 until August 1849, the First War of Independence saw Sicily first rebel against the rule of the Bourbon Empire before spiraling out from Milan, with Italian nationalists engaged in strikes, rabble rousing, and armed conflict with the Austrian authorities. During this period of tumult, Orsini found time to return to Florence, and marry Assunta Laurenzi on June 28 1848. Following the lead of Giuseppe Mazzini and seeking to bring about the unification of the Italian state by Republican means, Orsini, carried out revolutionary activities and attacks both within the Papal States and throughout the Tuscan region in which he was resident. Following the establishment of the Roman Republic in February 1849 where the rebels were able to temporarily (very temporarily it transpired as the Roman Republic lasted only five months in total) seize power from the Austrians, Orsini was elected as a deputy to the short lived Constituent Assembly. Following armed French interference at the behest of the Pope, the Assembly was disbanded and the short lived experiment in an Italian Republic fell apart, leaving Orsini and many of his peers to flee from invading French troops.

In March 1850, Orsini and his wife settled in Nice. Here he opened a business ostensibly to supply the hemp ropes supplied by his uncle Orso, however he still kept in contact with other Republicans and was in regular contact with Mazzini during this period. His revolutionary and mercantile activities did not impact upon the family growing however, and in 1851, Orsinis’ first daughter Ernestina was born. She was joined in early 1853 by her sister, Ida. Life as a small time merchant was frustrating for Orsini who like many of his generation longed for an Italian that was administered and controlled by the people of Italy rather than aggressive foreign powers. In September of 1853, Orsisin attempted to stage armed revolts in both Sarzana and Massa. Both of these resulted in failure and attracted the attentions of local legal enforcement agencies. Following this debacle, Orsini was forced to leave both his small business and small family behind, and escaped from Italy with the police close at heel, finally finding refuge in London. Life in the British capital was not particularly unpleasant (apart from the grey skies) for Orsini as he was still acting as an agent on behalf of Mazzini and was in frequent contact with other revolutionaries. Although exiled from both his country and his family, Orsini was not isolated, as England at the time had a wide variety of political exiles, including numerous Italian Republicans. Orsini was also not in England long. In 1854 on orders of Mazzini he travelled to Austria where he attempted to start a rebellion amongst troops and in doing so influence their actions within Italy. His attempts did not meet with success, and again Orsini was forced to flee to Hungary with the Austrian police and military in hot pursuit. Here his luck ran out and he was arrested in 17 December 1854. Orsini soon found himself detained for life in the fortress of Castello di San Giorgio in Mantua, Lombardy.

The imposing fortress prison of Castello di San Giorgio, where Orsini was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1854.

Although imprisoned for life, Orsini was far from bereft. He was still in regular communication with the outside world, including friends and acquaintances in the United Kingdom, and fellow followers of Mazzini in Italy. As well as communication with the outside world, Orsini was also able to have goods smuggled to him whilst imprisoned, and it was thanks to these that he was able to make a series of increasingly ludicrous escape bids. Initially, Orsini was able to get opium smuggled into his cell. This he used to drug the guard on duty. Unfortunately the small quantity of opium with which he was able to drug the guard with failed to have a particularly soporific effect and when the guards changed duty it was assumed that their drugged up colleague was merely drunk. Not to be disheartened, Orsini then had morphine smuggled in. Unfortunately the quantity provided was insufficient to drug all the prison guards and turnkeys on duty and so this plan too was aborted. Finally on 29 March 1854, in scenes reminiscent of low grade prison movies, Orsini was able to saw through the bars of his cell with a smuggled blade, and after constructing a rope from torn up bedding, shimmy down the 100 feet of the exterior walls of the Castello di San Giorgio. Somehow reaching the ground without breaking his neck, Orsini was met by his contacts, and after quickly changing into peasant clothing made off into the night. Eventually with the support of both friends in the UK and followers of Mazzini in Italy, Orsini was able to make his way back to London using false documents.

Despite the ease with which Orsini was able to make his escape, the fortress of Castello di San Giorgio had a reputation for being impregnable. A physical manifestation of the Austrian state, it was assumed that escape was impossible for those detained within. Much to the chagrin of the Austrians, and the delight of international members of the press, its defenses had been trivially bypassed using a saw, some torn up bedding, and possibly a small bribe to ensure the relevant guards looked the wrong way. Orsinis’ escape was the topping of much conversation, and he quickly exploited it producing two volumes concerning his adventures with Austrian jurisprudence, ‘The Austrian Dungeons in Italy’ (1856) and ‘Memoirs and Adventures of F. Orsini Written by Himself’ (1857) which were widely and enthusiastically read by an amused British public. Orsinis’ time in the United Kingdom was not just spent churning out epistles of his escape, and he was able to contact many fellow Italian nationalists. Included in their number was Giovanni Andrea Pieri who had been a resident of Birmingham since 1853, and Carlo de Rudio (about more later) was living nearby in Nottingham. As well as being in regular contact with those Italian Republicans in the Midlands, Orsini was also briefly a member of the ‘Muswell Hill brigade’ which centered around the radical English solicitor, William Henry Ashurst.  Opposed to capital punishment, and slavery, Ashurst was a proponent of the political and social equivalency of the sexes, and established the ‘Friends of Italy’ which welcomed refugees to the fold such as Orsini. Following a acrimonious dispute with another member of the Friends of Italy, James Stansfeld (who would later go on to be Sir James Stansfeld, MP for Halifax and President of the Local Government Board) and the issuance of an invitation to duel by Orsini, the latter fractured his long held association with Mazzini.

It seems odd, on first glance that Orsini would cease his adherence to the cause of Mazzini. He had after all, acted as an agent, an instigator, revolutionist, and briefly member of the Constituent Assembly and for years had adhered to both the cause and strategies outlined by Mazzini. The rift is possibly to do with the acrimony he encountered from the Friends of Italy, the influence of the French exile Simon François Bernard, or merely because Orsini perceived that the current strategy had resulted in little more than privation and exile. Simon François Bernard was like Orsini and exile in London, having taking flight from his native France, and was a committed revolutionary. Although at one point a military doctor in the French navy, by the time of Orisinis’ arrival in England, Bernard was very much associated with European radical movements and was perceived by many to be a martyr in search of a cause, and may have discussed with Orsini the plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise wherein a small group had plotted to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte by use of explosives in 1800. Although he was not to find a cause in Italian Republicanism, the fatalism of Bernard may have proved contagious to Orsini especially considering the latters displacement from many supposed radical circles in London. It was following his break with Mazzini, that Orsini first formulated a somewhat convoluted plan. If he could successfully assassinate the French head of state, the French armed forces would be temporarily rudderless. The death of the French Emperor could perhaps lead to widespread revolt in France, which would spill into the rest of Europe, which could result in the formation of an Italian state as neither the French nor Austrians would be in a position to provide resistance having troubles of their own to consider and address. Fully convinced in the logic of his cause, Orsini sought out both supplies and co-conspirators who could help him enact his plan.

Orsini found likeminded radicals who supported his aspiration in Giovanni Andrea Pieri, Carlo de Rudio and another Italian nationalist, Antonio Gomez who was at the time also a resident of Birmingham. As well as being home to both Gomez and Pieri, Birmingham at the time was also a major manufacturing hub, and it was upon this expertise that Orsini was to draw. In his travels, Orsini had attempted to learn as much as he could with regards both improvised explosives and chemistry and it was a Birmingham gun maker to which he was to turn to develop his invention. Conventional explosives of the period relied upon a fuse or a timer, and it was Orsini who was to provide the world with an alternative. By appending pins filled with mercury fulminate to a casing filled with explosives and shrapnel, the device could be detonated by merely throwing it and causing the pins to come into contact with a solid object.

Orsinis’ Infernal Machine

Birmingham as highlighted was a hub of heavy industry and had a thriving market for gun makers who were at the time of Orsinis’ visit famed throughout the Empire and beyond. Taking the designs of his improvised ordinance around the city, Orsini was able to find a Birmingham gunsmith and manufacturer by the name of Joseph Taylor. According to Graces’ Guide to British Industrial History a likely suspect for the original maker of the Orsini bomb could be found at the time on 49 Lawley Street (which presently in known as Lawley Middleway) or later working as an engineer in an Iron Foundry situated on Broad Street  Following construction and testing of the device, Joseph Taylor provided several working devices to the conspirators who smuggled them into France under the auspices of medical equipment.

49 Lawley Street Birmingham, known today as Lawley Middleway. Where the Orsini bomb was fabricated is now the site of a Volkswagen car dealership.

With newly created fragmentation explosives in tow, the band of assassins arrived in Paris in 1858. On the evening of 14 January 1858, Pieri found himself detained, however Orsini, Gomez and de Rudio were able to detonate their Birmingham made devices with devastating effect. As a result of the explosions that shattered the Parisian evening, Orsini was injured himself by shrapnel and bleeding copiously from a jagged wound to his cheek made his way laboriously back the lodgings of the group after first seeking treatment from a local pharmacy. Although the suspicions of the pharmacist may have been raised, ultimately the group was undone by their youngest member Gomez, who prior to the attack had sought to steady his nerve in a nearby Italian restaurant and was questioned by the police who noticed his nervousness. They could hardly not, as his behavior in the restaurant had what was prompted the police to be called in the first instance. After running around the restaurant in a highly agitated state, Gomez had eventually slammed himself down at a table and ordered meal after meal in rapid succession, failing to finish any of them. When questioned by the police prior to the attack, he helpfully provided the address of the hotel he was staying at for his tenure in Paris. Within hours of the attack, the Parisian police had gathered descriptions of the suspects, and Gomez, de Rudio, and Orsini soon found themselves woken from their hotel beds and marched into police custody to face justice for an attack that left eight people dead, and one hundred and fifty eight injured, and the Emperor of France with a grazed nose.

French justice was swift, and the group was bought to trial on 25 February 1858. Following a two day trial in which the defendants all shifted culpability to Orsini, the judgements were handed down. Although their cause has created some sympathies in French radical circles, Orsini, Pieri, and de Rudio were all sentenced to death, with only Gomez (who was considered largely idiotic) was condemned to a life of penal servitude at the prison of Cayenne in French Guyana. Following the trial, de Rudio was also sentence to a life of penal servitude a decision that may have been as a direct result of his noble birth as he was in actuality the errant son of the Italian nobles, Count and Countess Aquila di Rudio. During his brief detention Orisini composed a number of eloquent letters, however for all his eloquence, sentence was carried out and on 13 March 1858, both he and Pieri were executed by guillotine in Roquette Square. Although Orsini had left a will and requested that his body be buried in Chiswick cemetery in London that was also the resting place of the Italian poet, Ugo Foscolo, the French state was in no mood to honor his request and his remains, along with those of Pieri were dumped in a common pit at the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.

And here, the story of a Birmingham bomb designed by an Italian radical and thrown at a French Emperor that sadly resulted in civilian carnage would end, were it not for the oddities of history. One of these can ultimately be found in the life of Orsinis’ co-defendant de Rudio. Carlo Camillo Di Rudio (commonly called de Rudio) has a life that has unsurprisingly failed to attract either serious historical research outside of Italy, or the attentions of a Hollywood screenwriter. Born on 26 August 1832, Carlo was the son of Italian nobility, the Count Ercole Placido and Countess Elisabetta de Domini. He enlisted in the Italian military at the tender age of fifteen, and during the Milan uprising referenced earlier in this article was responsible for killing an Austrian soldier who had himself killed and raped two local women. Inspired by the injustice he saw around him, he took part in a number of failed rebellions and met Mazzini and Garibaldi before like Orsini having to seek refuge in the United Kingdom. Following his involvement in the Orsini plot, de Rudio was sentenced to a life of penal servitude in French Guyana. Within a year he had managed to escape from a seemingly inescapable tropical hell, and after surviving a storm which battered his raft as he floated free of Devils Island found his way eventually to England. To escape the diplomatic pressures that the French were bringing to bear on the UK authorities, de Rudio then immigrated to the United States, arriving just as the civil war broke out. Enlisting on the Union side was wounded on multiple occasions and rose to the rank of Captain. Following the civil war, de Rudio stayed in the military and was sent to the Western frontier joining the command of the 7th Cavalry and a certain George Armstrong Custer. On 25 June 1876, de Rudio was present for the infamous Battle of Little Big Horn. One of the few survivors of this seminal event in the history of the American West, de Rudio was transferred subsequently to Texas where he got to know Geronimo. Eventually in 1896 he retired before becoming a successful and prosperous vineyard owner producing wines grown from grapes he had imported from his native Italy.

The somewhat implausible life of de Rudio aside, the Orsini bomb was to live on owing to the later actions not of nationalists and Republicans, but of European Anarchists. On the evening of 7 November 1893, the Spanish Anarchist, Santiago Salvador hurled two Orsini bombs from the balcony at the Gran Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona which ironically was also staging a performance of Rossini’s William Tell (the same opera the French Emperor had been on his way to observe). The attack by Salavdor left 22 dead and 35 wounded and resulted in a crackdown by Spanish legal authorities that led to the detention, brutal torture, and death of hundreds of Spanish Anarchists. Rather than prompt a revolution against the bourgeoisie, the bloody attack by Salavador led to a bloody reprisal by the Spanish state.

Salvador was not alone in his use of the fragmentation grenade designed by Orsini, and its malignant spread resounded around Europe for decades after its creation in a Birmingham workshop. It remains perhaps one of the most barbarous and bloody exports from Birmingham, and its origins are arguably of interest to not only historians of political violence and terrorism, but those concerned with local history and its impact on the world as a whole. Although Joseph Taylor could not have known at the time, the ordinance he created was to leave a bloody stain on the pages of history, that are now for the most part neglected, however relevant to our own disappointingly fractured and bloody age.

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