The 14th Century poem Inferno commits to hell the adulterous lovers, Francesca and Paolo, by the hand of her husband Giovanni. Their violent death in the name of love is typical of a crime of passion or crime passionnel (from the French). Although these crimes have typically been associated with France, they have always been prevalent in most societies in history and in the present day. The perpetrators of crime passionnel were often acquitted, adding to the intrigue and public fascination with the cases, which still exists today. Moreover, contrary to America, in France men were more often acquitted than women, except in rare examples such as the Caillaux Case.
June 20, 1914: The threat of war was brewing in the Balkans and the French public were fixated on the murder of Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro by Madame Henriette Caillaux.
Joseph Caillaux was appointed prime minister of France in 1911, but was subsequently ousted after being accused of being too accommodating to the Germans. Being the leader of the radicals, he was under constant attack from the right. Furthermore, Caillaux had been relatively indiscreet in his personal life, displaying his mistresses around as a bachelor. He also continued his secret love affair with Henriette (who became his second wife in 1911), after his marriage to his first wife.
Caillaux’s opposition to legislation aimed at increasing French military strength meant he became the object of a major smear campaign led by Gaston Calmette. He threatened the publication of certain documents that would prove Caillaux had been personally involved in a financial scandal in 1911, but also private letters. Believing that Calmette would publish secret love letters that would demonstrate their intimate relationship, Henriette Caillaux made the decision to protect her husband. She took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro, waited patiently for an hour to see Calmette, walked into his office, and shot him six times. Calmette died later that evening.
Henriette Caillaux’s trial for Calmette’s murder began on July 20, 1914. She was acquitted eight days later on the grounds that hers was a crime passionnel. Meanwhile Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.
The obsession with crime and the rise of the murder mystery novel had the effect of trivializing crimes. More common causes were alcoholism, abusive relationships and poverty. In more recent history, one of the most bizarre and unforgettable crimes of passion occurred in 1993, when Lorena Bobbitt attacked her husband and cut off approximately 2.5 cm of his penis, which she then threw across the highway. The jury found Lorena not guilty due to her husband’s sexual abuse.
The popular daily press have used crimes of passion to formulate theories about criminality and social disorder. Many have blamed these crimes on a loss of rational control caused by suggestive media images. Video games have been used as a scapegoat in more recent media, more than any TV show, film or musical production.
Blaming media images seems a little far-fetched. Far from being an indicator of disintegrating society, crimes of passion are a much more personal affair. Nevertheless defence pleas have used ‘temporary insanity’, which Daniel Sickles first filed in 1859.
Sickles shot his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key in Lafayette Park. His defense told the jury that he was driven insane by his wife’s infidelities and he was later acquitted of his crime of passion.
Sickles was involved in a number of personal scandals. He escorted a known prostitute into the New York State Assembly Chambers and also reportedly took her to England, presenting her to Queen Victoria under an alias, whilst leaving his pregnant wife at home. Afterwards, attempting to repair his public image, he was active in raising volunteers in New York at the outbreak of the Civil War. He was appointed Colonel but ended his career in disgrace by disobeying orders at the battle of Gettysburg, and putting the Union army in jeopardy.
Acquittal for crimes of passion has been a feature from the 19th century to the present day. Crimes of passion have been intrinsically linked with the love triangle. Moreover in some countries, notably France, crime passionnel was a valid defense during murder cases in the 19th century until the 1970s. This defense has been thrust into the headlines again, with ‘a crime of passion’ for Oscar Pistorius’s killing of Reeva Steenkamp not being ruled out. Crimes of passion look set to hold the public interest for years to come.