Victor Noir (1848-1870) was an unassuming French journalist assassinated by Prince Pierre Bonaparte, the cousin of Napoleon III. At his death, he became a symbol of the cost of imperial repression, and after his burial, he became a symbol of fertility, all thanks to his very proud…package.
In 1869 a war of letters broke out between two rival (Corsican) newspapers, the loyalist L’Avenir de la Corse, and the radical La Revanche. The primary target of La Revanche’s printed attack was Napoleon I and his descendants, which inflamed the ferocious loyalties of the rival paper. On 30thDecember 1869, L’Avenir printed a letter attacking the integrity of La Revanche and its staff. The letter was authored by Prince Pierre Bonaparte, the cousin of Napoleon III, who by this point had ruled over France for over two decades. The editor of La Revanche, Paschal Grousset, took enormous offence at the public attack on his publication and the moral turpitude of his staff. Tensions rose to breaking point between the rival factions.
A few days after the original letter was printed, Prince Bonaparte wrote another, again printed within L’Avenir. Within the letter he reiterated the treacherous nature of La Revanche’s staff, and swore to uphold his family’s honour. Bonaparte taunted the radical paper, suggesting they were all hot air and would never directly enforce their ‘treacherous’ anti-imperial beliefs.
He closed his letter by throwing down the gauntlet of a duel:
‘I therefore ask you whether your inkpot is guaranteed by your breast… I live, not in a palace, but at 59, rue d’Auteuil. I promise to you that if you present yourself, you will not be told that I left.’
The next day, the editor of La Revanche sent Victor Noir and Ulrich de Fonville to the Prince’s house with the intention of setting the terms for the duel, with both men appointed as his ‘seconds’ (men who took a dueller’s place, should they fail to fulfil their promise). Instead of following their editor’s orders, they both presented themselves as worthy opponents; each was armed with a revolver. However, the Prince rejected both their proposals and also the written proposal of the editor, insisting that his argument was with the owner of the newspaper, who was the nobleman Victor Henri Rochefort, Marquis de Rochefort-Luçay. The Prince called the journalists before him ‘menials’ of Rochefort, after which Noir reasserted his solidarity with his fellow workers and friends. According to the reports of Fonvieille, the Prince became incensed, slapped Noir around the face before swiftly shooting him dead. However, the Prince’s testimony read differently, saying that it was Noir who slapped him first, before the Prince shot the journalist. Regardless of the initiator, the outcome was the same and Noir was dead.
The death of Noir made him an instant martyr for the revolutionary republican cause, and his funeral was to become an enormous display with more that 100,000 joining the procession of his coffin to a cemetery in Neuilly.
And what of the Prince? He was acquitted of all charges. At this time, the fires of revolution were being stoked once more and another symbol of imperial defiance led to huge and violent public protests and demonstrations. In 1870, the imperial regime was overthrown as a result of the Franco-Prussian war and a Republic was subsequently established.
In 1891 Noir’s body was removed from Neuilly and reinterred at Paris’ famous Père Lachaise Cemetery. But why did Noir not fall into obscurity, like so many others lost to the republican cause? To memorialise his resting place, a life-sized bronze sculpture was made in his likeness, depicting Noir as though he had fallen down dead on that exact site, his top hat not far from his hand. As realistic as Noir’s likeness may be, one element of his physicality is more flattering than others, a physicality found within the trouser region.
The frankly massive bulge in Noir’s trousers made his memorial a popular destination for women visiting Père Lachaise for over a century. According to legend, placing a flower in Noir’s hat and kissing him, or simply rubbing ‘Little Noir’ will ensure fertility, imminent marriage or a particularly exciting sex life, depending on which variant you choose. Subsequently, while the rest of Noir’s bronze likeness has oxidised into a greyish (Verdigris) colour, his lips, hat and triumph are all decidedly well-buffed. In an attempt to protect the statue from further damage through excited rubbing, a fence was installed in 2004, but was soon torn down by the amorous people of Paris who were not to lose their well-endowed good luck charm.
Today, the tomb continues to be rubbed and straddled by everyone from anonymous tourists to burlesque icon, Dita von Tease herself. His hat remains filled with flowers and apparently, the occasional photo of children who were conceived with his phallic magic.
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