Modern history


The Secrets of Panama

“What have you done with the money?”



It was nearly three years later when the Panama scandal broke wide open, rocking France to its foundations. Between times, the great Universal Exposition of 1889 had been staged beneath Gustave Eiffel’s gargantuan tower, and French political life went along little changed from year to year, one ministry succeeding another, despite the flaming oratory, despite the Boulanger crisis. General Boulanger, “the strong man,” having sat out his chance to seize power, having escaped to Brussels with his adored mistress, Madame de Bonnemains, had also, soon after her death, shot himself at her graveside.

Panama, to be sure, had remained a major topic. Some 800,000 French men and women had been directly affected, the savings of entire families had utterly vanished. People who could ill afford to lose anything had lost everything. Still, no panic had been touched off when the company went under. There were no demonstrations in the streets May 15, 1889, the day the liquidator ordered that the work be halted on the Isthmus. Instead, shareholders submitted their grievances by formal petition, in polite, written pleas for redress through government action. Tempers cooled; rumors of fraud and political payoffs were denied or discounted or simply grew stale. When the liquidator established a special committee to go to Panama and estimate the cost of finishing the canal, many shareholders actually took heart, convinced that the government was about to rescue them.

Among those who had been distrustful of the Panama proposition all along and remained clear of it, there was the feeling that such was life for the unwary, that sheep were there to be shorn. For the rest, for nearly everyone as time passed, there was the feeling that Panama was best put behind. The prospect of the tragedy being compounded by a sensational and ruinous scandal was neither anticipated nor desired by the public at large. And very possibly there would never have been an affaire de Panamá had it not been for the country’s leading anti-Semite, the strange, secretive Édouard Drumont.

•   •

Edouard Drumont, a devout Roman Catholic, a professed lover of history, had observed the world about him and concluded that the sickness of modern France—by which he meant France since “La Débâcle”—was finance capitalism and that the nation’s most treacherous human foe was the Jew. The Jew by his very nature, said Drumont, had no sense of justice, none of the finer sensibilities that made civilization possible. Jews were carriers of disease, born criminals and traitors, who could be recognized by their “crooked nose, the eager fingers, the unpleasant odor.” He had said this and much more in La France Juive (Jewish France), a book of more than a thousand pages that appeared in 1886, that ran to more than a hundred editions and made the author famous—feared, despised, secretly admired—throughout the country.

Drumont was black-haired and spectacled, with a thin, hooked nose, and a thick black beard and mustache that together masked the whole lower half of his face so effectively that his mouth was all but hidden. Many people thought he looked Jewish. His wife was dead; he had no children; he kept his money hidden in secret nooks and crannies about his house. By profession he was a journalist, and until the appearance of La France Juive, he had been tremendously frustrated by lack of recognition, having tried his luck as a traveling salesman and a novelist but without success.

That his elephantine tract received such phenomenal attention was in itself a point of fascination, since anti-Semitism had been rare in France. Beyond Paris it was hardly known. Drumont’s assertion was that there were 500,000 Jews in France; in reality there were perhaps 80,000. But it was the time of the pogroms in Poland and the Ukraine, and those refugees who had found their way to France, though comparatively few in number, were highly conspicuous and had aroused anxiety among some elements of French society, including French Jews. More important, there was the growing belief that finance capitalism had become a conspiracy, that the country was in the grip of the financiers, and that in the face of such power, the small shopkeeper or the ordinary workingman counted for little.

It was for the Jewish monarchs of finance—the Rothschilds, the Ephrussi—and those Christians who courted the favor of such people that Drumont reserved his worst venom. Saint-Simonianism was declared to be nothing more than a device of the Jews to lift themselves out of the ghetto. The Franco-Prussian War had been engineered by Jews. If examined closely, all failures in modern French society could be traced to the Jewish capitalist system, Drumont asserted.

So with the fall of the Compagnie Universelle—the greatest of ventures thus far in finance capitalism—he naturally began looking into things.

The initial result was another book, La Dernière Bataille (The Last Battle), a self-styled “history” of la grande entreprise that appeared in 1890 and became a runaway best seller. How could a forthright government fail to audit the canal company’s books? Drumont demanded. How could the likes of Ferdinand de Lesseps be permitted to walk about a free man? “This evil doer is treated like a hero. The poor devil who breaks a shop window to steal a loaf of bread is dragged . . . before the judge of a criminal court. But into this affair, which has swallowed up almost a billion and a half [francs], there has been no investigation whatever; not once has this man been asked: ‘What have you done with the money?’ ” Le Grand Français, he cried, was in fact a great fraud, a cheat and liar, a fountainhead of corruption. He painted a vivid and greatly distorted picture of extravagant luxuries on the Isthmus and took special pleasure in a vicious, personal assault on Jules Dingler. Dingler’s house had cost $1,000,000, he insisted. “This man, who seems to have endured heavy afflictions but who was a stranger to every sentiment of justice and humanity, was hated so bitterly that the death of his wife became the occasion of a merry festival. Champagne flowed in torrents . . .” Sixty percent of the workers had died, he claimed. The death count could not have been less than thirty thousand. “The Isthmus has become . . . an immense boneyard. . . .”

Presently, he founded his own newspaper, an illustrated anti-Semitic daily called La Libre Parole (Free Speech). His chief lieutenants included such individuals as Jacques de Biez, who enjoyed asking priests if it was true that Christ was a Jew (“Drumont doesn’t mind,” he would say, “but I can’t swallow it!”), and the Marquis de Mores, an aristocratic psychopath whose wife was Medora von Hoffman, daughter of a Wall Street banker. On one occasion de Mores, who was a crack shot, had stood in for Drumont in a duel and killed a French Army officer, a Jew who had challenged Drumont as a result of certain insulting remarks about Jewish officers in La Libre Parole. Drumont and de Mores were accused of staging the whole episode, as a kind of execution, and de Mores was tried for manslaughter but was acquitted.1

La Libre Parole was no runaway success, however, not, that is, until September of 1892, when Drumont broke a series of sensational stories under the title “The Secrets of Panama,” these signed “Micros.” The “Jewish plot” at the heart of the Panama tragedy had at last been found and enough else had begun to happen meantime to make the public sit up and take notice.

The chief magistrate of the Paris Court of Appeal, Samuel Périvier, under orders from the Minister of Justice, had appointed a court counselor and an expert accountant to audit the canal company’s books and to interrogate various former officers, including Ferdinand and Charles de Lesseps. The charge was fraud and breach of trust.

Ferdinand de Lesseps had made an unforgettable appearance before the court counselor, a man named Henri Prinet. For nearly two years de Lesseps had been living in seclusion. In the early months of 1889, after the company failed, he had tried manfully to assist in the liquidation process, while at home he went through the customary motions as head of the family. From the upper floors of the big house on the Avenue Montaigne, he—all of them—had been able to watch Eiffel’s tower rise higher and higher as the spring of 1889 and the opening of the exposition approached. But by that summer he had become a distant, bewildered old man. In recent months he had been confined to his bed under the care of a physician.

Yet on the day he was to appear before the court counselor, he suddenly revived. It was as if something had clicked on inside the ancient head and suddenly he was himself again. Charles afterward described what happened:

The doctor . . . expressed the opinion that it would be very imprudent for my father to go out . . . . Nevertheless the meeting had to take place sooner or later; I hoped that one conference would suffice and . . . so I thought it better for him to suffer the shock immediately . . . . My father rose from his bed and . . . said: “I shall go.” He dressed, and by the time he reached M. Prinet’s he had apparently recovered all his strength; he remained three quarters of an hour . . . and when he left his face radiated charm and energy as it always did under difficulties.

It is not known what de Lesseps said in the interview, other than that he defended his management of the company and the canal itself. On returning home, however, he went straight to his bed and for three weeks he hardly stirred, saying nothing to anyone other than to tell his wife a day or so later that he had had the most horrible dream. “I imagined,” he said, “I was summoned before the examining magistrate. It was atrocious.”

The homes and offices of company officials, and of Gustave Eiffel, were gone through by police and documents were seized. On January 5, 1892, in response to persistent prodding by a hotheaded young Boulangist named Jules Delahaye, the Chamber of Deputies voted unanimously for “resolute and speedy action” against all those involved in any foul play in the Panama business. Next, the court-appointed accountant who had been auditing the company’s books reported that though he found no sign of company officers profiting personally, he nonetheless thought several of them were indictable for misuse of funds and for willfully deceiving the public.

But these were faint tremors compared to the impact of the so-called “Micros” articles in Drumont’s paper, the first of which appeared September 10. “Micros,” as was later divulged, was a pseudonym for Ferdinand Martin, the banker from Nyon who had organized the first petitions for a lottery in 1885. That great show of popular support, as Martin would testify, had in fact been wholly conceived and organized in the offices on the Rue Caumartin. He had been paid for playing his part, but not enough in his view, and as a result he had had a falling out with Charles de Lesseps the following year. The articles for Drumont were his way, six years later, of evening the score.

The articles charged that twenty members of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate had been bribed by the canal company to vote for the lottery bond bill and that the prime fixer for the company was Baron Jacques de Reinach. A director of the company, Henri Cottu, had been involved, as had the publisher of L’Économiste Pratique, a man named Blanc. The actual cash deliveries had been made by one Léopold-Émile Arton.

Arton, or Aron, as he was also known, was a flashy, out-and-out swindler, a former sales agent for the Société de Dynamite, the explosives trust, who had once unloaded a bad shipment of dynamite on the unsuspecting canal officials and as a reward had been placed in a secretarial position in the Société’s head office. Thus established, he had then managed to embezzle somewhere in the range of 4,600,000 francs, and at the moment, with a warrant out for his arrest, he was no longer to be found in France.

Almost daily La Libre Parole provided additional bits and pieces, bearing down heavily all the while on Jacques de Reinach. It became the most eagerly read paper in France. Other Paris papers quickly took up the scent. To a powerful figure such as Arthur Meyer, publisher of Le Gaulois, a royalist paper, the scandal was the long-awaited chance to topple the Republic, and so every new revelation was given full play, irrespective of the fact that Meyer was himself a Jew.

When La Cocarde, another right-wing paper, carried an interview with Charles de Lesseps that appeared to confirm the “Micros” revelations, a new Minister of Justice, Louis Ricard, felt compelled to act. De Reinach, Cottu, Blanc, and Charles de Lesseps were summoned for interrogation. All but de Reinach either denied the allegations or refused to reply; the publisher Blanc was so convincing that he would not be bothered again. De Reinach conceded to the interrogator, Henri Prinet, only that he had given Arton 1,000,000 francs to use for publicity and that he personally had distributed large sums to the press—in excess of 3,000,000 francs—but that he had certainly never bribed anyone in a position of public trust.

Convinced of the baron’s guilt, Prinet ordered the commissioner of police to see de Reinach at his home at once and to confiscate all papers relating to his Panama dealings. For some unexplained reason, however, the commissioner allowed several days to pass before doing anything. When he appeared at de Reinach’s door in the fashionable Parc Monceau quarter, he was told the baron had gone to the Riviera. So no papers were obtained.

Drumont’s charges, meantime, had become far more specific and detailed. It was plain that he had found a new inside source, somebody who knew precisely how the Panama business had been run. With the public outcry mounting, the Ministry of Justice was under tremendous pressure to act. Delahaye and others in the Chamber were demanding a parliamentary investigation. But Premier Émile Loubet and his Cabinet held back, urging prudence, urging patience, hardly daring to make a move, living only day by day and fearing the worst. None could say how many old friends might have been involved, who might be destroyed were the avalanche to let go.

•   •

In October the public prosecutor, one Jules Quesnay de Beaurepaire, proposed a civil suit for damages, instead of a criminal trial. He had no wish to see Ferdinand de Lesseps in prison. His purpose, he stated, was to provide some restitution to the ruined shareholders rather than to impose “the sterile penalty of imprisonment upon an octogenarian in his dotage.” So now the government had to decide, and at length, on November 15, a special meeting of the Cabinet was convened. Premier Loubet, small and spotlessly groomed, excused himself from any part in the decision, saying it should be the prerogative of the Minister of Justice. (Such deference was a quality hitherto unknown in Premier Loubet.) The decision had already been made, declared the Minister of Justice, Ricard, who was large and fat and had creamy-white side whiskers. He had ordered that criminal charges be brought against Ferdinand de Lesseps and the others thus far implicated.

But on Monday morning, November 21, the morning the summonses were to be served, Paris awoke to the stunning news that Baron Jacques de Reinach had been found dead.

The papers were vague on details. It was known only that when his valet went to wake him as usual at seven Sunday morning, he found on entering the bedroom “a member of the family” who turned and said the baron was dead. The “member of the family,” as later disclosed, was the baron’s nephew Joseph Reinach (without the de), an influential editor, and it was he who reported the death first to Adrien Hebrard, of Le Temps.

The rest of the day was one nobody would forget. The summonses were served that morning as scheduled, on Ferdinand and Charles de Lesseps, Henri Cottu, Marius Fontane (former secretary general of the Compagnie Universelle), and Gustave Eiffel. At the Palais Bourbon the word spread that Delahaye would speak in the afternoon, and when another deputy, seeing Delahaye walk by, stopped him to urge restraint, Delahaye responded, “Do not leave the sitting, there will be a big explosion.”

At five o’clock, when Delahaye rose from his place and started down to the speaker’s stand, all seats in the semicircular red-plush tiers of the Chamber were taken. Premier Loubet and his ministers were seated down front; the two levels of the public galleries were solid with spectators. Newspaper reporters and the Chamber’s veteran silver-chained, frock-coated ushers could recall no moment quite like this one.

Delahaye mounted the eight steps to the rostrum, just below and in front of the president of the Chamber, Charles Floquet. Delahaye, Deputy for Chinon and a member of the extreme right, was known as a “good hater.” He was spare and athletic, with sleek black hair and an upswept handlebar mustache nearly the size of a sickle blade. He seldom ever smiled and there was a decided squint in his right eye. It was a face, wrote his fellow deputy and fellow Boulangist Maurice Barrès, that bespoke “inflexible cruelty.” Whether Delahaye and Drumont were working together is not entirely clear, but Barrès, among others, would claim they were.

“I would stake here my honor against yours,” Delahaye began. He would give no names, but behind the canal company there had been an “evil genius”: the directors duped the public, the evil genius duped the directors.

“Name him, name him!” several voices shouted from the packed chamber.

“If you want names, you will vote an inquiry,” Delahaye answered.

He charged that 3,000,000 francs had been distributed in the Chamber, that 150 deputies had been bought. He had seen the list. At once there was a violent uproar. “The names! The names!”

There were only two kinds of deputies, Delahaye exclaimed, those who took the money and those who did not. Floquet, who was also a former premier, was now on his feet directly behind Delahaye. “You cannot come into this house and accuse the entire body,” he thundered down at the Deputy. Again there were angry cries for names.

“Vote the inquiry,” Delahaye shouted.

When he started for his seat the great room was in wild disorder. He was hissed at; deputies banged their desks to add to the uproar. The Premier next ascended the steps to the tribune but for several minutes was unable to speak against the noise. Such irresponsible charges, he cried, stemmed solely from uncontrolled political passions—that is, the old Boulangist faction was trying to destroy the Republic. Assuredly, light must be shed on so grave a matter; of course his government would hide nothing.

The Chamber voted the inquiry. A committee of thirty-three members was named and the debate raged on. At another sitting of the Chamber, two days later, one honored member became so excited he collapsed and had to be carried out. Men wept as accusations were hurled from the tribune. Fist fights broke out in the aisles.

Much of the country and the foreign press could scarcely believe what was happening. George Smalley, star reporter of the Battle of Antietam, who was now London correspondent for the New York Tribune, cabled his home office that as fraught with recklessness and venality as the Panama business must have been, “we can with difficulty be induced to believe that it has utterly debauched public life in France.”

There were wild rumors concerning de Reinach, the evil genius of Delahaye’s speech, whose body had been taken from Paris and buried immediately after the required twenty-four-hour delay. It was said that he had taken poison. (Le Gaulois, the smart society paper, described his final agony in such exquisite detail that it was as if someone from the paper had actually been in the bedroom.) It was said that he had been poisoned by someone, that he had been murdered in his sleep. It was said that he was alive and out of the country. The coffin was empty, exclaimed one deputy in a speech.

A family physician had attributed the death to “cerebral congestion”; a regular certificate of death had been signed by a city doctor. Still the Chamber rang with cries for an autopsy. The critical issue had been found; the line had been drawn. And the Ministry of Justice held fast. The baron’s body, Louis Ricard announced, could be exhumed only if there was a clear suspicion of murder, and having no such suspicion, he refused to step beyond the law.

But it was too late; it was, as Philippe Bunau-Varilla would write, “the beginning of a convulsion.” On November 28 the Chamber voted overwhelmingly to proceed with an inquiry into Jacques de Reinach’s death. And with that the Loubet government fell.

The week following, the president of the Republic, Sadi Carnot, called upon Alexandre Ribot, Loubet’s foreign minister, to form a new government.


No one ever got to the bottom of the Panama Affair and no one ever will. The Chamber’s own committee of inquiry, the much-publicized Committee of Thirty-three, held 63 sessions; it received 158 depositions, compiled more than 1,000 individual dossiers. Its final report fills three ponderous volumes. But time and again the fact-finding stopped short of facts that might prove too embarrassing or destructive. Old colleagues were protected. Barrès, by no means an impartial observer, but a keen judge of human nature, wrote, “The committee fell into the mistakes of all inexperienced courts of inquiry. They were unduly affected by the skillful emotional show of a lot of sly old sinners who appeared before them.”

De Reinach’s lips were permanently sealed of course. His death, the pivotal event in the unfolding story, would also remain one of the most puzzling of several unsolved mysteries.

The coffin was exhumed four days after the new government took office. A large party of physicians, police, and newspaper people went out to the baron’s country place at Nivillers and stood about in a snow-covered cemetery to witness the unearthing. The body was in the coffin, but the autopsy proved nothing since by then the vital organs had so decomposed that the cause of death was impossible to determine.

No sooner had the mutilated remains been returned to the grave than the fundamental design of the scandal—as then perceived—was drastically altered by the introduction of an entirely new character of even more sinister cast. To the astonishment of everyone, de Reinach was now revealed to have been but nominally the villain of the piece. At once the affair became more complex, more fascinating, and far more sensational politically, because now it implicated the most formidable figure in French public life, Georges Clemenceau.

The new character in the plot had been involved since the time when the Türr Syndicate had been organized. He was Cornelius Herz —known to his associates as “Le Docteur”—and to the decided satisfaction of Édouard Drumont and the rapidly growing numbers who saw things as Drumont did, he was both a foreigner and a Jew. He was unknown to the public and to most of the press when his name first turned up. The papers could report only that he was an American who somehow or other had been awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor and who had a standing in the electrical industry.

The rest of his story came later, pieced together by reporters in Paris and San Francisco, and seldom had a more perfect charlatan been discovered. The man was shrewd, daring, utterly charming when it suited his purpose. Though he had attained his initial fortune and social acceptance as a physician and “man of science,” the best evidence was that he had neither a medical degree nor little, if any, substantive scientific knowledge.

Herz was born at Besançon, in eastern France, in 1845, which made him forty-seven at the time his name leaped into print. His parents were German Jews who, when he was three years old, emigrated to New York, where the father became a packing-box manufacturer. At thirteen Cornelius entered the College of the City of New York; in 1864 he was graduated at the bottom of his class. Presently he returned to France to study medicine, and by the time of the Franco-Prussian War he had acquired enough background—or said he had—to qualify as an assistant surgeon in the French Army.

After the war he went to Chicago, where his parents had relocated. Later he turned up on the staff of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, but in a few months he was on the move again. Officials of the hospital had begun investigating his background and found, in the words of their report, that he had “very ingeniously avoided taking the examination for house physician and surgeon,” and that “his supposed graduation from the University of Paris was fictitious.” Whenever asked for his diploma, Herz said it had been destroyed in the Chicago fire.

He arrived in San Francisco with one volume of medical terminology (a twenty-six-year-old edition of John Mayne’s Dispensatory and Therapeutical Remembrancer), a few hundred dollars, and a darkhaired American wife, Bianca Saroni. Presenting himself as a specialist in diseases of the brain, he opened an office filled with electrical gadgetry. “He was a man of the world, apparently well equipped for his profession,” the San Francisco Evening Bulletin would later report, “yet with a sanguine, sky-scraping temperament that made him soar above men and to seek wonderful and world-stripping achievements. A dozen valuable inventions were his—a hundred marvelous scientific processes were to be worked out by his genius.”

His practice grew rapidly until 1877 when, with his wife and two infant daughters, he suddenly departed for France. As later disclosed, he had gone off with several checks from a retired brewer, a former patient, amounting to $80,000, notes the brewer had made out to Herz when Herz had him under hypnosis. In New York, as his ship was about to sail, Herz cashed a check from another patient, this for $30,000, which supposedly he was to invest in a French electrical scheme. A San Francisco electrician had been taken for $13,000; a physician who had been in a partnership with Herz was out $20,000.

In Paris he became known as the successful young American with large plans. Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were personal friends, he said. Some of Edison’s ideas were actually his own. He founded a respected scientific and industrial review, La Lumière Électrique. He established telephone service between Paris and Versailles, invested in a variety of speculative, quasi-scientific ventures, including the Türr-Wyse scheme. Within an amazingly short time he seemed to know everybody who counted—Charles de Freycinet (four times premier), Hebrard of Le Temps (who introduced him to Clemenceau), Emily Crawford, Ferdinand de Lesseps, Boulanger, President Jules Grévy.

De Freycinet had been the one who had arranged for him to receive the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor. The decoration, as de Freycinet was to explain subsequently, and to the satisfaction of very few, had been conferred at the request of the scientific community.

In Emily Crawford’s phrase, Herz understood “the inner lines” of French politics and by far his most valuable friendship was with Clemenceau, with whom he had much in common. Clemenceau too had begun his career as a physician; Clemenceau had lived in the United States and married an American girl. It was a friendship that Herz knew how to advertise and that Clemenceau would later find expedient to forget. Herz supplied the money to launch Clemenceau’s newspaper, La Justice, and put still more into the paper as time went on, perhaps as much as 2,000,000 francs. At one point Clemenceau even appointed Herz the guardian of his children in the event of his death.

Clemenceau, the impassioned republican, the fiery voice of “revanche” editor, atheist, teetotaler, the most aggressive orator in the Chamber of Deputies, occupied a unique position: he was feared by everybody—on the left, extreme left (his own Radical party), center, right, extreme right. Harsh, even ruthless, brilliant, he made other politicians seem dull-witted, flabby in spirit. He was the “Tiger,” and with his taut physique, his bristling eyebrows and yellowish complexion, he looked the part.

As for Herz, he was the most ordinary-looking of men. “Everything is ranged against me,” he is said to have once remarked, “even my own appearance.” Anyone trying to remember him at the scene of a crime would have had trouble thinking of a single distinguishing feature. There was a full mustache, a mustache of the kind then being worn by most every male Parisian past the age of twenty. There was a round face, a generally bland expression, a thinning hairline. He was short, a bit overweight; he could have been any of a dozen men on any busy street in the city. Only the eyes, it is said, suggested the energy and cunning within.

•   •

The first public mention of Herz in connection with the Panama scandal came as a result of an appearance before the Deputies committee by a banker who had once been an employee of the firm of Kohn, de Reinach. Anthony Thierrée said that in July 1888 de Reinach had deposited with him a single check issued by the canal company for 3,390,000 francs. In return de Reinach had asked for twenty-six separate checks of differing amounts equivalent to the same sum. The checks were made out to “Bearer.” It had seemed a perfectly normal transaction. Though the banker first claimed to have no records of the checks, the stubs were soon confiscated from the bank’s vault and on all but one were the plainly written initials or first several letters in the names of prominent recipients, as well as the amounts of the individual checks.

The stubs were the first solid evidence in the case and they caused a sensation. The checks were to be traced through banks all over Europe. The sums made out to various government officials and legislators ranged from 20,000 to 195,000 francs (from $4,000 to $39,000). The recipients included such personages as Senator Albert Grévy, brother of the former president; Senator Léon Renault, one of the most esteemed legal minds in France; and a deceased Minister of Agriculture. The single illegible stub was for 80,000 francs and the identity of the recipient became another of those tantalizing mysteries that would sell enormous numbers of newspapers and keep the rumors flying in the marble corridors of the Palais Bourbon.

But the largest amount—two checks for an even 1,000,000 francs each, or $400,000—had gone without any explanation to Cornelius Herz, who, it was now learned, had removed himself to London.

A few days after the committee obtained the check stubs, a lawyer for Herz, a dandified and rather notorious former Paris prefect of police, Louis Andrieux, produced for the committee a photograph of a note containing a list of names, a photograph obtained from Herz. The names were the same as those on the stubs, but the note referred to still another check for more than 1,000,000 francs that had been broken down by the unsavory Léopold-Émile Arton and delivered to 104 members of the Chamber of Deputies. The two largest payoffs, the photograph further disclosed, a check for 250,000 francs and another for 300,000 francs had gone to none other than Charles Floquet and to Deputy Charles Sans-Leroy, the man whose last-minute vote had cleared the lottery bill for action in the Chamber.

The note appeared to corroborate everything that Jules Delahaye had charged in his momentous attack. Overnight the public fastened on to one expression, one tangible, understandable image—the checktaker, the chéquard. A new word had been added to the French language. “That fatal word became the topic of every song, gibe, anecdote, and demonstration,” wrote a contemporary chronicler. “All along the boulevards itinerant vendors sold songs and broadsheets, ‘Who Hasn’t Had His Little Check,’ . . . Comedians, cabaret singers, and everyone else found the cheque a mine of inexhaustible satire.”

As the committee pressed on with its investigation, and later, when the actual trials got under way with witnesses testifying under oath, the picture of what had been going on began to change dramatically. Bit by bit Herz emerged, like some crucial but long-concealed figure discovered beneath the surface of a familiar painting. For all those absorbed in the scandal—for just about all of France—it would be impossible thereafter to think of Panama and not think of Cornelius Herz.

•   •

There was testimony to the effect that Charles de Freycinet had extracted campaign contributions from the Panama company. A deputy who had served with Charles Sans-Leroy on the lottery-bill committee said he too had been offered money—100,000 francs—to vote for the bill, by a professed emissary of Charles de Lesseps, and that when he refused, the offer had been tripled. Charles de Lesseps denied any knowledge of such an offer, but when it was charged that former Minister of Public Works Baïhaut (“the man with the beautiful wife”) had been paid 1,000,000 francs to give the lottery bill his support, Charles de Lesseps made no denial.

Adrien Hebrard admitted that he had entered into a secret partnership with Gustave Eiffel, in Eiffel’s bid for the Panama contract. Eiffel, moreover, had paid Hebrard 2,000,000 francs and had paid de Reinach nearly the same amount for their influence.

Then Andrieux, Herz’s lawyer, dropped the astounding news that Drumont’s inside source in the weeks following the “Micros” articles had been none other than de Reinach. Indeed, had it not been for de Reinach, Drumont’s despised Jew, the paper would have run short of material. The bargain had been that Drumont would keep de Reinach out of the columns of the paper so long as de Reinach kept Drumont supplied with incriminating Panama details. Andrieux knew because he had been the go-between.

Drumont, called to appear as a witness, happened to be in jail—he had at last been convicted on a libel charge—and he refused to appear unless his sentence was suspended, a proposition the courts refused.

But the thing that was most perplexing to the investigators was the gathering evidence that de Reinach, supposedly the arch crook in the plot, had been keeping nothing for himself. He who was bleeding the canal company of millions—to “subsidize” the press ostensibly, but in fact to pay off a great many others as well—he who was getting regular kickbacks from several other Panama contractors besides Eiffel, was in turn being bled by someone else. And the someone was Herz.

Herz and the baron had known each other since Herz first arrived in Paris from San Francisco. De Reinach had been instrumental in obtaining government contracts for various Herz enterprises. It was de Reinach who had brought Herz into the arrangement with Istvan Türr and Lieutenant Wyse. But at no time thereafter, not once in all the years the canal was being attempted, had Herz lifted a finger to help the Compagnie Universelle. He had never performed a single identifiable service for the company—legal or illegal—to warrant compensation; yet, as near as could be figured, he had received millions of francs through de Reinach, possibly as much as 10,000,000 francs, or $2,000,000. In addition, the company had made at least one direct payment to Herz of 600,000 francs.

The arrangement had been this. At the time of Ferdinand de Lesseps’ first campaign for a lottery issue, Herz had persuaded the old man and Charles to advance him the 600,000 francs for the good he could do them politically—the expenditure was entered in the company’s books under “publicity”—and to agree to a 10,000,000-franc payoff if and when a lottery bill was passed. The elder de Lesseps had even blithely agreed to give Herz a written copy of the secret agreement, which put the company pretty much at Herz’s mercy until 1887 when Charles recovered the incriminating paper and burned it.

Apparently the final 10,000,000-franc payment was to have been made through de Reinach, who was to take a cut for himself in repayment for money Herz owed him. But Herz had suddenly turned the tables on de Reinach. When the lottery bill was passed in June of 1888, the company refused to give de Reinach the 10,000,000 francs to give to Herz, the company’s position being that Herz had done nothing and so deserved nothing. Herz, who was then in Frankfurt, immediately informed the directors by telegram that de Reinach must “pay or be destroyed . . . I shall wreck everything rather than be robbed of a single centime; take warning, the time is short.”

So it was then that the directors turned over to de Reinach the check for 3,390,000 francs, which de Reinach took to the bank and converted into the various checks to “Bearer,” the two largest of which went to Herz. From that point on Herz had been blackmailing de Reinach, and thereby the canal company, for everything he could get.

What hold Herz had on de Reinach remained obscure, although there were innumerable theories concerning various dark secrets in de Reinach’s past, things so dreadful that he had been willing to go to any lengths to keep Herz silent. A favorite theory was that de Reinach had committed treason in order to advance himself socially or financially—the sale of state secrets to Italy possibly, or to the British Foreign Office—and that Herz had made it his business to know the details.

At one point de Reinach had threatened to expose Herz if he did not leave him alone, but it was a hollow threat. At another time, according to Louis Andrieux, de Reinach became so desperate that he hired an assassin to do away with Herz, a charge that was never substantiated or denied.

•   •

The story of de Reinach’s last night alive was revealed by degrees, beginning with an article in Le Figaro. On hearing of Ricard’s decision to proceed with criminal charges, de Reinach had rushed back from the Riviera, and on the fateful evening of November 19 he had gone to see Herz at Herz’s home near the Bois. But he had not gone to see Herz alone, the paper reported. There had been two others with him, Finance Minister Maurice Rouvier and Georges Clemenceau, whose mission was to plead for mercy in de Reinach’s behalf. When this side of the story broke, the response in the Chamber, and in the cafés, was a host of new theories about de Reinach’s death: he had been poisoned by Rouvier, by Clemenceau, by Herz.

Rouvier resigned at once. It was true that he had gone with de Reinach, he told his stunned colleagues in an emotional speech. It had seemed the humane thing to do; de Reinach was being driven insane by the newspapers and he thought Herz had the power to silence the attacks. The explanation satisfied almost no one, however, and the fall of a figure of Rouvier’s stature—he was the one brilliant financial expert in the government, as well as a former premier—sent shock waves through Paris and set off a panic on the Bourse.

Clemenceau told a similar story and without so much as a trace of remorse. It was at Rouvier’s urging, he said, that he had agreed to go along that night; Rouvier had thought it important. The conference in Herz’s study had been brief. De Reinach had been extremely agitated, “his face crimson and his eyes popping out of his head.” Herz had said it was too late to silence the papers; he considered the subject closed. Herz was perfectly cool and controlled, Clemenceau recalled, and wholly unsympathetic.

Later in the evening de Reinach went alone to see his nephew Joseph, then, still later, to see two young women whom he kept in respectable style in the Rue Marbeuf. Apparently he reached his own home about one in the morning and was found dead six hours later. The consensus in Paris was that he had taken poison and probably that is what happened.

It was Adrien Hebrard who informed Herz of the death, immediately after Hebrard had been informed by Joseph Reinach. So Herz knew before almost anyone and Herz departed for London that afternoon—that is, the afternoon of the Sunday before the arrests were made. On his way to the station he called on Andrieux to report that Joseph Reinach was “at work” on his uncle’s papers and could be trusted to leave nothing embarrassing lying about.

•   •

Herz was cause for torrents of invective in the Chamber, naturally enough. But Herz was out of the country and would stay there presumably, so in a large sense Herz was a straw man. The real target was Clemenceau.

How had such an individual as Herz, a foreigner, a quack doctor, risen so far so fast? In back of de Reinach was Herz, but who was in back of Herz? Who was the powerful, unseen patron of “this little German Jew”?

“Now, this indefatigable and devoted intermediary, so active and so dangerous, you all know him, his name is on all lips,” exclaimed Deputy Paul Dérouléde, self-appointed superpatriot and fanatic Boulangist. “But all the same not one of you would name him, for there are three things that you fear, his sword, his pistol, his tongue. Well, I brave all three and I name him: it is . . . Monsieur Clemenceau.”

Instantly the Chamber became a shouting mob. One deputy jumped up and cried that Herz was an agent of the Foreign Office, a British spy. Yes, yes, Dérouléde proclaimed, and Clemenceau had been his colleague.

Clemenceau responded with cold fury and looking directly at his accuser proclaimed him a liar: “Monsieur Paul Déroulède, vous en avezmentir”

The inevitable duel followed, in a paddock at the Saint Ouen race track outside Paris on a chill, gray afternoon a few days before Christmas. Dérouléde, tall and somber, stood bareheaded; Clemenceau, who was known as an expert marksman, kept his hat on. It was agreed in advance that photographers could be present and that dying words would be faithfully recorded. They each fired three times; they each missed three times. After the final volley, Déroulède was seen to examine a corner of his coat with “an appearance of apprehension.”

•   •

So by the year’s end, in the less than four months since Édouard Drumont commenced his disclosures in La Libre Parole, a government had fallen; three former premiers had been named in the plot, along with two former ministers and two prominent senators; more than a hundred deputies or former deputies stood accused of taking payoffs; there had been one probable suicide, a panic on the Bourse, a much-publicized duel. The sinister Herz had become a subject of worldwide fascination and there was the growing conviction that France had been the victim of a diabolic conspiracy.

About the only missing ingredient was a femme fatale and the suggestion of prominent government officials involved in illicit pleasures of the flesh. But then that also was added shortly by the Paris correspondent for The New York Times. In a long dispatch on the front page of the Times, January 15, 1893, appears a reference to the dazzling courtesan Léonide LeBlanc. It is not very much, only enough to imply a great deal, and there is no way either to verify it or to enlarge upon it. According to the Times report, “Her house in Paris was the center of the whole Panama intrigue and at her dinners these incriminated ministers, deputies, and editors met the cashiers of the rotten enterprise. She herself feathered her nest luxuriously out of the haul. . . .” She was also, according to theTimes, “so braided up on every detail” of all that had gone on that nobody would dare say a word about her, and especially no one in the Chamber, “since more than half its members were guests under her roof [in] those lavish, hospitable days.” And as it turned out, no more was said of her.


Ferdinand de Lesseps remained unaware of events unfolding in Paris. Though somewhat improved physically, he passed his days seemingly oblivious of the world at large, wanting only peace. He had been removed from the city to the seclusion of his country place, where Madame de Lesseps made certain that he saw no one who by some slip might give things away. Bundled into a double-breasted seaman’s jacket, a smoking cap on his head and a fur-lined robe over his knees, he spent hours staring into a log fire. Only on New Year’s Day when Charles failed to appear for the traditional family gathering did he become suspicious, demanding to know what had happened. He was told and the effect was devastating; but then he lapsed into the slow, silent decline from which he was not to recover.

The arrest at Charles’s apartment on the Avenue Montaigne had been handled with such discretion by the police that his wife was unaware of their presence. But like Marius Fontane, Cottu, and former Deputy Sans-Leroy, Charles was to be treated thereafter as if he were a dangerous public enemy. They were taken to the Mazas, the old metropolitan jail opposite the Gare de Lyon, and were put in separate cells. No visitors were permitted, other than their attorneys; the few times they were taken from the jail to testify in advance of the trials, they went handcuffed and under heavy guard, riding in the sort of van used to transport common criminals.

For Charles the ordeal was to be a long one. He would be tried twice, in two separate courts on different charges. The first trial was for fraud and maladministration, for “fraudulent maneuvers to induce belief in unreal schemes, and to raise imaginary hopes of the realization of a chimerical event.” The second trial was for corruption of public officials—political bribery. And since the elder de Lesseps was to be excused from appearing, because of his health and advanced age, Charles would bear the entire weight of the defense.

The first trial commenced in the Paris Court of Appeal on January 10, 1893, and lasted four weeks, two days.2 On the eve of the first session the mood of the city was strange and unsettling. People by now, people of every political hue, were openly questioning the entire structure of French society. An atmosphere of general distrust pervaded the whole of France. “The situation in Paris grows more ominous day by day,” reported Smalley of the Tribune. There was talk of a royalist coup; military units near the city were kept on alert. The Italian ambassador informed his government that France was on the brink of revolution.

“Panama” had become a universal term of abuse, and, for many, a battle cry. On the night of January 6, La Libre Parole had staged a large anti-Semitic rally at the Tivoli Vauxhall. Jews had created Panama, exclaimed the main speaker, the Marquis de Morès, and it was the Jews who were rejoicing now at the ruin of French honor. When several hundred spectators rose in angry protest (as the rest of the audience cheered wildly), a riot broke out. Chairs were smashed; people were beaten to the floor and trampled.

This was not the “real France,” the still-incredulous Smalley cabled New York. “The real France is the France of M. Pasteur,” he urged his readers to bear in mind. “ . . . It is the France of Baron Alphonse de Rothschild, who makes the new year welcome to the poor by his gift of a million in charity. It is the France not of Panama but of the French who rejoice to think themselves . . . the one great republic of Europe.”

Large crowds gathered outside the beautifully wrought iron gates of the huge, gray Palais de Justice and an unmistakable air of apprehension filled the courtroom from the moment the prisoners were brought in. Périvier, the chief magistrate, and the four other judges and the prosecuting attorney entered in black robes and round gold-encrusted black caps. They were seated, the caps were placed on the benches before them, pencils were picked up, Périvier nodded to the clerk who then read the indictments.

Charles, the first witness, rose from the prisoners’ benches, a line of four folding chairs placed directly in front of the judges. Behind him, also standing now, was his attorney, Henri Barboux, who, like all others of his profession present, wore the traditional black gown and white, starched bib and collar of the avocat. Charles appeared in good health, even “full of energy,” despite a month in solitary confinement, but he would remain noticeably circumspect, even a shade pompous. He showed, as one reporter observed, little of the “élan that would have made him a more sympathetic figure.”

The others took their turn in due course: the gray, bookish Fontane, who appeared frightened and maintained that he had done only what he had been told; the impeccable Cottu, who nervously twisted a black mustache; Gustave Eiffel, vigorous in speech, handsome, near-sighted, whose lawyer was Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau, a future premier of France. Eiffel, though not imprisoned like the others, had been charged with making ill-gotten profits from a contract by which he had been guaranteed, among other things, an enormous cash advance and an enormous cash indemnity should the company fail to provide the necessary machinery for his locks within a ridiculously brief time. In the aggregate (as estimated by the Deputies committee), the company had paid out more than 74,000,000 francs to Eiffel, from which his profit had been tremendous. As an example, the indemnity paid on account of undelivered lock machinery was 18,000,000 francs, whereas his own outlay for such equipment amounted to less than 2,000,000 francs.

It would be said in Eiffel’s defense, however, even in the committee’s report, that the famous engineer had done nothing dishonest himself; he had merely had the advantage of a “curious” contract. Moreover, had the entire project been completed, the locks built, his profit would have diminished greatly.

In reply to questions from the bench, Eiffel said he had been deeply touched by Ferdinand de Lesseps’ call for his help, but that it was with de Reinach that he had entered into negotiations. “Oh, I hesitated,” Eiffel recalled. “I hesitated a long time.”

A decrepit old man from Nîmes, a witness for the prosecution, who was deaf and nearly blind, gave a moving description of how he had invested the last of his savings in Panama upon seeing Ferdinand de Lesseps at one of the lottery bond rallies. Then four other similar “victims” were brought in by the prosecution, and the last of them, after telling the court he had been ruined, recalled that Ferdinand de Lesseps had personally counseled him to hang on to his Panama shares. “It is terrible,” remarked the chief magistrate. “Everybody here pities you.”

No witness questioned the good faith of Charles. Armand Rousseau pointedly dismissed all thought that Charles could have harbored fraudulent intentions. And since the political side of the scandal was not at issue in this trial and no political celebrities were paraded in to testify, Charles remained the central figure. His intention from the beginning, he said, had been to serve his father to his best ability; he was proud to have played that role and to have stayed at his father’s side to the end. He affirmed that Baïhaut, who also had been arrested by this time to await criminal prosecution, was paid to introduce the lottery bill and that de Reinach had been too.

“You wasted the millions of your stockholders intentionally,” charged the prosecutor, a bald, fierce-looking man named Ráu.

“With as much intention as one hands over one’s watch at pistol point,” Charles answered.

“And how did you understand that Baron de Reinach used these enormous sums?” Judge Périvier broke in.

“In remunerating financiers and, without doubt, senators, deputies, and ministers. Others also assisted de Reinach,” Charles said. He had taken care not to ask what was done with the money.

“That is, you gave them the dirty job which you preferred not to do yourself, but provided them with the means of doing!”

Charles made no reply and as the trial wore on he grew increasingly solemn and diffident. At times his voice was so low that only those in the first rows could hear him.

The prosecutor talked of “the greatest fraud of modern times.” Addressing the bench he exclaimed, “You will not hesitate to punish these criminals, who in order to attract millions have had recourse to every maneuver, every fraud . . . I demand the most stringent application of the law.”

The plea for Ferdinand and Charles de Lesseps, delivered by the small, white-haired Henri Barboux, was a classic example of nineteenth-century courtroom oratory lasting the better part of two days. With rolling phrase and mounting emotion, he called upon the court to recall just who Ferdinand de Lesseps was, what he had done in his life, what he had meant to France, what he still meant in the hearts of millions, including those very people who had suffered most from the Panama failure. Hours passed, marked by a large, gilt-edged clock high on one wall. The longer he spoke, the greater the tension became. Imagine the response, he said, were the old hero to enter the room at this very moment to speak in his own defense, and much of the audience appeared to catch its breath, half expecting the rear doors to swing open at any instant.

How could his clients be charged with fraud when they had taken nothing to enrich themselves?3 If they had miscalculated the expense of the undertaking, what great projects had ever cost what was originally estimated? His clients had never been alone in their faith that the great enterprise would succeed. The one sin Le Grand Franèais might be found guilty of was excessive optimism. But it was only the optimist who succeeded in this world. Pessimists were never anything but spectators.

The Court of Appeal passed judgment on the morning of February 9, the room “packed to suffocation.” The five defendants were found guilty as charged and the sentences were unexpectedly severe. Ferdinand and Charles de Lesseps were each sentenced to five years in prison and fined 3,000 francs. Fontane and Cottu were sentenced to two years and also fined 3,000 francs. Eiffel, though acquitted of complicity in swindling, was found guilty of misusing funds entrusted to him. He was sentenced to two years and fined 20,000 francs.

•   •

Several days later, in the evening, and escorted by two police officers, Charles left the Mazas prison on a special pass. Ferdinand de Lesseps had been demanding to see his son, whom he accused of abandoning him. His anxiety was such that his doctor had become extremely concerned.

Charles, his wife, and the two policemen arrived at the little railroad station nearest La Chesnaye well after midnight. A carriage was waiting and they drove another fifteen miles through the dark countryside, arriving at the château around three in the morning. At first light Charles went in to see his father.

He found the old man awake but still in bed. On the bedside table were a number of Paris papers, all of them a year or more out of date.

“Good morning, Father. I have been able to leave my work and here I am.”

“Ah, Charles,” the old man responded. “Is there nothing new in Paris?” Then he kissed his son, repeating simply, “Ah, Charles! Ah, Charles!”

When the family gathered for lunch in the huge dining room with its great, carved seventeenth-century buffets, Ferdinand de Lesseps entered slowly with a cane and took his customary place at the head of the table. No one explained to him who the policeman was sitting beside Charles, and he never asked. Once he smiled at his son and seemed about to say something.

In the afternoon Charles and the family and the two policemen took a long walk; then, after dark, the prisoner was returned to Paris.

•   •

Charles was a different man after that. It would be said that his manner during the first trial had been carefully contrived, the strategy being that discretion, even silence on certain matters, would be rewarded with a light sentence. There may be some truth to the interpretation. However, it does not seem quite in character. More likely the months in prison, the personal humiliation of the trial, and the visit to La Chesnaye had been a momentous inward journey from which he had returned with a profoundly different view of himself and his responsibilities.

His deportment during the second trial was still that of the perfect gentleman, only now there was an unmistakable edge of outrage; that and the utter composure—even ease—of a man with little more to lose, with no one left to protect, who has decided quite literally to have his day in court.

Again the setting was the Palais de Justice, but now in the larger Court of Assizes and before a jury. Charles and Fontane were charged with distributing bribes; Baïhaut, Sans-Leroy, three relatively unknown deputies, one inconsequential senator, and a go-between named Blondin, a former employee of the Crédit Lyonnais, were charged with accepting them. Charges against those more celebrated figures implicated thus far—Floquet, de Freycinet, Senators Grévy and Renault, various deputies of note—had all been dropped for lack of evidence. So the important politicians were not to be tried. Nor was Ferdinand de Lesseps.

The payoff artist Arton was another absent party and a dreadful embarrassment to the police, for in recent weeks Arton had led two Paris detectives, one an aide to the head of the Sûreté, on a wild chase across half of Europe, from Budapest to Bucharest to Jassy to Nuremberg to Prague to Magdeburg to Hannover, then back to Budapest, where the detectives lost the trail. Where he was now nobody could say.

Cornelius Herz had also been added to the list of accused this time. But he was sequestered in a small seaside hotel at Bournemouth, England, refusing to return to Paris on the grounds that he, like the elder de Lesseps, was too ill to travel. Nor did there appear to be much that could be done. To secure total privacy, Herz had rented the entire hotel (no great problem at that season of the year). Two men from Scotland Yard sent to arrest him on an extradition warrant affirmed that he was indeed an extremely sick man. He was placed under house arrest until several eminent London physicians, including the queen’s own Dr. Russell, Reynolds, could be dispatched to Bournemouth to give an opinion. To a man, they certified the gravity of Herz’s condition.

But what if Herz was putting on an act? What if, in fact, he was an agent for the Foreign Office, as had been charged, and so the whole thing was an act?

Paris was filled with such conjecture, and the same questions come readily enough to mind even now. But if it was an act, then Herz must have been something of a theatrical genius or the new government of Premier Alexandre Ribot must have been in on it as well; for a succession of French physicians came next to Bournemouth at the invitation of the Foreign Office and they too reported the patient to be in a ghastly state, and mentally as well as physically.

So Herz, still under arrest, remained in his suite overlooking the English sea. No one could see him, no one could get him to divulge a word—not until Emily Crawford appeared and talked her way through the guarded front door and up to Herz’s bedroom. The interview was the only one Herz was ever to permit and it raised questions concerning the Panama Affair that never were to be answered.

Herz, she reported, was suffering from Bright’s disease (an acute inflammation of the kidneys), complicated by an unnamed “malady of the nervous system.” He would never come out of the hotel alive she prophesied.

She found him in bed, propped up with pillows and covered with furs and blankets. She was shocked by the change in him, but “the light hazel eye had lost none of its electrical brilliance . . . The clearness and vigor with which he expressed himself was amazing.”

He told her that de Reinach had been involved in a vast European intrigue, the object of which was a “readjustment” of the alliances that then bound the central powers and to “fill the pockets” of a syndicate of politicians who were working under the direction of de Reinach.

They were to have divided among themselves a tremendously big sum which was to have been obtained as a commission on a state loan issued in Paris under the auspices of M. Rouvier and by means of “virements,” or transfers of credits voted by Parliament [the Chamber of Deputies] from the War and Public Works Departments to the Foreign Office, which was to pay the members of the syndicate.

The story was like something from the Arabian Nights, she wrote. “But . . . I could not regard it as fanciful. Dr. Herz was the key to worse scandals than the Panama one. . . .”

The incriminating documents were in a safe place in London, Herz said. The reason he refused to return to France was that he had been charged with treason and espionage in the Chamber, and this meant he could be tried behind closed doors. His sentence, almost certainly, would be one of long penal servitude—Devil’s Island.

•   •

“It smells bad in here,” one spectator is reported to have said the morning of March 8 as the second trial began. “Yes,” answered another, “it stinks of scapegoats.”

The judges now were in magnificent red robes, and the parade of witnesses included Floquet, de Freycinet, Clemenceau. Remarks made by some witnesses also struck the audience as uproariously funny for the first time. Sans-Leroy, for example, declared on the second day that the 200,000 francs he deposited in his bank account just after the committee vote on the lottery had been part of his wife’s dowry. His attitude, he insisted after the judge called for order, was always “that of a member of a committee who wished to be enlightened,” which sent the audience into another convulsion of laughter.

Then, that same day, Charles Baïhaut burst into a long, agonized confession, head down, voice cracking. The once exceedingly selfrighteous minister told how he had obtained 375,000 francs as a down payment for his support of the lottery measure. “For fifteen years I served France faithfully as deputy and as minister and led an irreproachable life. Even now I cannot understand how I could have sinned.”

Yet for all this, Charles de Lesseps was again the one around whom everything turned in a drama that held the nation spellbound. His account now was at once open and lively and immensely interesting. Spectators were immediately conscious of the change.“His intelligence, his ability, his dignified bearing, all made a marked impression . . .” wrote the French historian André Siegfried. “He appeared chiefly as someone who had been struggling against a gang. He had undertaken an impossible task, and had done so against his own better judgment, and yet he had tried to fight on to the bitter end. But the sharpers had got the better of him . . .”

He could have put the blame on his father at any time, but this he never did, not even by inference. His position, simply stated, was that neither he nor any official of the Compagnie Universelle had set out to bribe anyone; rather, they had been the repeated victims of extortion. Everybody had wanted a cut. The company had been told to pay for political support, for influence on the Bourse, for the willingness not to discredit its claims—or face the consequences. Newspaper reporters, financial advisers, people who merely knew people who supposedly could help or do harm—“They seemed to rise up from the pavement. We had to deal with their threats, their libels, and their broken promises.”

At one point, when Judge Pilet Desjardins told him to “cut it short,” Charles calmly replied, “No, I have time enough. All this is necessary to my defense.”

Powerful financiers, he continued, could not force anyone to buy stocks or bonds, but they certainly could prevent them from doing so. He described the initial overtures made by Herz, who had talked of the “improvements” he could obtain in the company’s standing with the government. “We should have preferred that he had not come to us, but . . . it was better to do that which would make him our ally instead of that which would make him our enemy.” Herz had taken him to visit President Grévy at Grévy’s country estate, where Herz, Charles said, had been received as a friend of the family. “I was then convinced that he was a man we must reckon with.”

“Your duty as a man of honor was to show such a fellow to the door,” interrupted the judge.

“But we could not make an enemy of the sleeping partner in La Justice,” he answered.

He recalled how the first sale of lottery bonds had been wrecked by anonymous telegrams announcing his father’s death. “Subscriptions stopped and we appealed to the courts for the punishment of those who had sent the telegrams, but there was no prosecution of the offenders. We were obliged to protect ourselves . . . . The financiers showed us how to resort to those methods which are now matters of general knowledge. They said: ‘Unless you pay the money to all the banks under the influence of Girardin [Émile de Girardin, owner of Le Petit Journal] you will have all the newspapers in Paris against you.’ We still held out against such methods, the newspapers attacked us, and finally we were driven to paying out enormous sums right and left . . . and this mode of procedure was encouraged by the government.”

“Leave the government alone,” the judge responded sharply, which brought a great outburst from the audience—shouts of “Why not the government?” “Give us the truth”—and the judge ordered that the room be cleared.

Charles testified subsequently that he had decided not to pay de Reinach and that de Reinach had threatened to take the company to court, warning that a public scene would bring the company to its knees. But Charles had made up his mind to run that risk and would have, he said, had not Floquet, de Freycinet, and Clemenceau sent for him, one by one, to tell him—“for the good of the Republic”—to pay de Reinach off and keep the waters smooth. Boulanger had been on the rise, Charles explained, and they were fearful of the consequences should the Panama company suddenly collapse. “They were very polite about the matter. They did not take me by the nape of the neck. . . .”

When their turn came de Freycinet and Clemenceau denied any part in the affair. Charles Sans-Leroy said he had no idea how his initials happened to be on the incriminating check stubs. Accused by the prosecution of selling his vote, Sans-Leroy, a large and extremely homely man in pince-nez glasses, replied with perfect equanimity, “Prove it.”

Charles de Lesseps was probably telling the simple truth as he knew it through the length of this, “The Great Bribery Trial.” Yet neither Floquet, nor de Freycinet, nor Clemenceau, nor Rouvier, nor anyone of importance was ever prosecuted. No newspaper publishers or reporters were brought to judgment. Those deputies and the one senator on trial were acquitted, Sans-Leroy as well. The single political figure to be convicted was Baïhaut and that was only because he had confessed.

The jury delivered its verdict March 21, 1893. Charles and Blondin, the intermediary in the arrangement with Baïhaut, were found guilty with extenuating circumstances. Charles was sentenced to a year in prison, Blondin to two years. Baïhaut’s sentence was for five years, the forfeiture of all civil rights, a fine of 750,000 francs, and full repayment of the 375,000-franc bribe. If Baïhaut were to find himself unable to meet these payments, Charles de Lesseps would be held accountable.

Charles de Lesseps was alone in maintaining his composure through the long reading of the sentence.

•   •

From everything that was said during the course of the two trials and from the mammoth report issued by the Deputies committee when its investigations ended in June, a few generalizations and one or two further facts of interest can be drawn.

The total amount paid out to de Reinach, Herz, and different political people, either directly or through de Reinach or Arton, can only be approximated. De Reinach, for example, received some 4,500,000 francs for his handling of the flotation syndicates, plus another 3,000,000 francs for “publicity,” plus nearly 5,000,000 more at the time Herz was threatening to “wreck everything.” That makes 12,500,000 francs—$2,500,000—that the company paid to Jacques de Reinach alone. Some of that was perfectly legitimate theoretically (for his part in the various security flotations); a good portion of it (according to the check stubs) went to fix various politicians; much of it, perhaps even all the rest of it, went to Cornelius Herz. But Herz is known to have received 600,000 francs directly from the company. Baïhaut got 375,000, Floquet obtained another 250,000, Sans-Leroy almost certainly got 300,000. And undoubtedly there were others. But how many? Perhaps there were more than a hundred, as the brave, unpleasant Delahaye had charged. No one will ever know. But it seems reasonable to conclude that the total sum paid out for political influence and for “friendship” on the Bourse could not have been less than 20,000,000 francs, or roughly $4,000,000. Conceivably it could have been a great deal more than that.

Payments to the press, beginning with the first stock flotation in 1880—a subject about which little was said during the trials—were reckoned by the committee to have been between 12,000,000 and 13,000,000 francs. No less than 2,575 different French newspapers and periodicals had shared in the company’s beneficence. Some little fly-by-night publications had even been founded for the sole purpose of getting in on the take. In addition to such giants as Le Temps and Le Petit Journal (which received the largest sums), the full list included such publications as Wines and Alcohols Bulletin, Bee-keeper’s Journal and the Choral Societies Echo.

Frequently payments were made to a particular editor or writer (for example, checks written to Arthur Meyer, of Le Gaulois, amounted to 100,000 francs); and often as not, and especially in the early years, the confidence these men expressed in the Panama enterprise, their faith in Ferdinand de Lesseps, were perfectly genuine. One man who did several Panama articles for a fee of 1,000 francs per article became so thoroughly sold by what he wrote that he invested all his savings in Panama stock and as a result lost everything.

Nor, it should be noted, was there anything strictly illegal or even unorthodox about such practices. What impressed the committee most, in fact, was the extent of services rendered for money invested. As large a sum as 12,000,000 to 13,000,000 francs might seem, it represented only about I percent of the company’s total expenditures. Of course, it was regrettable, the committee declared, that the press had need to resort to such practices, but such were the realities of survival.

•   •

Of those convicted, Baihaut suffered the most. He was put in solitary confinement in a prison where inmates were made to wear a hood whenever they were taken from their cells. Only after three years of this did the courts and the public decide he had been punished enough.

Gustave Eiffel, the only engineer to have been stained by the scandal, would be cleared later of having done any “dishonorable” act by a special committee of inquiry convened by the Grand Chancellor of the Legion of Honor. But his career as a builder was finished; he would thereafter apply himself to wholly different work in meteorology and aerodynamics.

De Freycinet, Floquet, and Rouvier would recover from their disgrace in time and be recalled to office. Loubet eventually became president of the Republic.

For Georges Clemenceau, the future savior of France—Le Père de la Victoire during the First World War—the next elections (those of 1893) were a disaster. The voters had cast their own verdict on his part in the affair and it would be nine more years before he made a successful return to public life. His own standard interpretation of the scandal was that it had been engineered by the Boulangists, and that the only reason they descended on Herz was that Herz had refused to give them money. When he re-emerged to save the country in 1917, Clemenceau would be seventy-six, as old as de Lesseps had been when he set out to redeem French honor after Sedan.

As for Cornelius Herz, he spent the rest of his life inside the hotel at Bournemouth. How much or how little truth there was to the things he told Emily Crawford cannot be determined. The secret cache of incriminating documents was never found. He died in 1898, taking his side of the story with him.

Léopold-Émile Arton was eventually discovered living peacefully in London. He was returned to France, tried, convicted, and sent to prison. Some years after his release, he committed suicide. Yet he had achieved an immortality of sorts. Spoofs of his flight from the detectives became the delight of the Paris music halls and among the most fascinated observers at his trial was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who did a series of rapid pencil sketches of the proceedings.

Gustave Eiffel never went to prison because in June of 1893 the Cour de Cassation, the supreme court of France, overruled the verdict of the Court of Appeal. Eiffel, Fontane, Cottu, Ferdinand and Charles de Lesseps were all acquitted on a technical ground: the summonses for their arrest, issued November 21, 1892, had come more than three years after the most recent of their alleged crimes and so, the court ruled, they were entitled to immunity under the statute of limitations.

Since the decision did not apply to the recent sentence by the Court of Assizes, Charles still had the one-year sentence to serve. But the months he had spent in the Mazas were deducted, and after becoming seriously ill, he was moved to a hospital, where he remained for the duration of his sentence. He was released in September 1893.

Charles’s troubles did not end there, however. Because Baihaut was unable to make good on his fine and indemnity, Charles was ordered in 1896 to pay nearly 900,000 francs in Baïhaut’s behalf. Unable to produce any but a small part of that amount and faced with another prison sentence if he did not make full payment, he fled the country and remained in London in self-imposed exile. Not until January of 1899, when the government at last agreed to accept a partial payment, did he return to Paris. By then it had been ten years since the fall of the canal company and Ferdinand de Lesseps had been dead for four years.

With family and friends and in all the remaining years of his life, Charles refused to speak of Panama. “He would not talk about it,” recalled an adoring nephew, “never, never, never, never.” And in the view of those who knew him best, he was regarded no less than ever as the most honest and admirable of men. The Suez company had kept him on its board of directors even during his time in prison. “He was a very honorable man, you know, the old-fashioned sort of thing,” the nephew would say. “And I am absolutely certain—I don’t know about the whole story, it’s very complicated—I’m certain he would never have done anything he thought dishonorable. That’s positive.”

Charles had been with his father at the end. It happened the year following Charles’s release from the hospital. Madame de Lesseps and the rest of the family were also present and death came very quietly for the old adventurer. He died at La Chesnaye, in his second-floor bedroom facing south, late in the afternoon on December 7, 1894, three weeks after his eighty-ninth birthday.

The body was taken up to Paris by train for burial in Père Lachaise Cemetery. There was no grand funeral procession; there were no crowds at the graveside services, only the family, a representative of the Société de Géographie, one very old boyhood friend, and the directors of the Suez Canal Company. The Suez company paid all the funeral expenses. In the eulogies the word “Panama” was never mentioned.


The extraordinary venture had lasted more than a decade. It had cost, according to the best estimates, 1,435,000,000 francs—about $287,000,000—which was 1,000,000,000 francs more than the cost of the Suez Canal, far more in fact than had ever before been spent on any one peaceful undertaking of any kind.

The number of lives lost, a subject that had been strangely avoided throughout the Affair, had not been determined, nor was it ever to be with certainty. Dr. Gorgas, from his analysis of the French records, would conclude that at least twenty thousand, perhaps as many as twenty-two thousand, died. Possibly that is high, but it remains the accepted estimate.

For France to have suffered such a massive financial and psychological defeat so soon after Sedan seemed a cruel, undeserved turn of fate. Even Bismarck lamented that so heavy a tragedy had overtaken so gallant a people. And the surge of anti-Semitism that Édouard Drumont unleashed was soon to spill over into the appalling Dreyfus Affair.

It had indeed been a blunder on such an inordinate scale, a failure of such overwhelming magnitude, its shock waves extending to so very many levels, that nobody knew quite what to make of it; and as time passed, the inclination was to dismiss it as the folly of one man, Ferdinand de Lesseps, about whom markedly different views evolved.

A popular conception was of the flamboyant enthusiast who began with limitless faith in his own omniscience, but reverted to his worst instincts the moment the scheme began to founder. That he had fallen in with the likes of de Reinach and Herz was, by this view, natural enough, since he was as accomplished a swindler as any of them. France, the world, had been taken in, according to a great many attorneys and business people who claimed to regard the Panama effort “by the ordinary rules of financial probity,” no more, no less.

To many American writers he had been the leading performer in a comedy of the absurd—“dancing and pirouetting in the front of the stage blissfully unconscious, apparently, of everything except his own capers.” Later, in Panama, it would be commonly understood among American canal workers that he had died in an insane asylum.

For a surprisingly large part of France, he still remained the beloved grandfatherly hero of old; “ancient and honorable,” but sadly lacking the power of sober analysis or even common sense—like all creative geniuses. His submission to the demands of financiers and crooked politicians had been, by this interpretation, as innocent as his disregard for what the engineers called practicalities. His gaze had been on his star, and his star, this time, had failed him. To debate his tragedy was to debate the stars. It was a view that bequeathed innocence by making him something of a simpleton. Monumental naïveté had been both his making and his unmaking. And destruction at the end for such a spirit thus became no less inevitable or blameworthy than it had been for, say, Joan of Arc, such being the real world’s reward for sainted madness.

But as events receded farther into the distance, he became something rather different. He was seen more and more as the tragic victim of earthly forces beyond his control: of the satanic jungle; of ambitious technical advisers willing to say anything, conceal anything, to satisfy their own selfish ends; of unscrupulous financiers (who to many people would be forever regarded as unscrupulous Jewish financiers). The fatal mortal flaw according to this interpretation had been to grow old. Once during the affaire de Panamá, a newspaper had suggested quite sympathetically that it might have been better had Ferdinand de Lesseps died earlier, at the peak of his career, and Madame de Lesseps had written a moving reply that was quoted widely, then and for years to come.

“I will not protest against this unchristian sentiment,” she wrote, “except to say that its author can have given no thought to the wife and children who deeply love and revere this old man and to whom his life, however frail it may be, is more precious than anything in the world. It is no crime to grow old.”

So the corollary assumption was that he would have succeeded had he not grown old, that he would have repeated Suez at Panama had he still been the de Lesseps of Suez, at the height of his manhood and in possession of his famed “powers.”

There was a degree of truth, of course, in all such interpretations. In the main, however, they were delusions. The real man had been infinitely more complex, his motives far more ambivalent, the personality filled with many more contradictions, than implied by any simplistic answers. He was both the most daring of dreamers and the cleverest of back-room manipulators. He was the indestructible optimist, believing to the depths of his soul that goodness and right invariably triumphed in the long run; and he was perfectly capable of deceit and of playing to the vanity and greed in other men. He was a trusting, decent, endearing man who could confide to a reporter several years after the canal was under way that he had known from the start that there would be trouble, who could blithely inform the press that his engineers had redirected the entire course of the impossible Chagres, who could tell his adoring stockholders on the eve of the final, inevitable collapse that success was theirs.

Arteries were hardening in the old system, no doubt, but to argue that age was his undoing is to disregard too many other factors of importance. His age, furthermore, became an apparent problem only toward the end when the cause was already lost. Until then it was the display of youthfulness that so captivated his following, that impressed so shrewd and impartial a close-hand observer as John Bigelow. Indeed, it could be as readily argued that his curse was the failure to decline, his inability to look and act his age. It is no crime not to grow old, Madame de Lesseps might have said. Again and again things could have gone differently, more prudent or realistic views might have prevailed, had he been incapable any longer of playing on his powers—to charm, to flatter, to inspire, to sweep good men onward, contrary to their better instincts, using nothing but the phenomenal force of personality. Men who did know how to compute realistic excavation schedules, men who had experienced Culebra “in the wet,” serious expert engineers at the top of their form, had listened and agreed and gone ahead as he wished time after time.

The root sources of his downfall had been apparent since the Paris congress of 1879: the insistence on a sea-level passage through country he knew nothing about, the total disinterest in conceptions other than his own, the refusal to heed voices of experience, the disregard for all data that either conflicted with or that appeared to vitiate his own cherished vision; but none of these would have mattered greatly had it not been for that extraordinary ability to inspire the loyalty and affection of individual human beings at every social and intellectual level.

From the technical standpoint the tragedy hung on the decision to cut through at sea level, to make another Suez Canal. Such a task at Panama was simply too overwhelming, if not impossible. The strategy did not suit the battleground.

The handwriting had been on the wall a good three to four years before the money was gone. With the equipment then available, even a lock canal of modest dimensions would have been an enormously difficult and costly task. But had he and his technical advisers decided to make it a lock canal even as late as 1886, at the time of his second tour of the Isthmus, there probably would have been a French canal at Panama, death, disease, jungle, geology, costs, and de Lesseps’ advanced age all notwithstanding. The size of the locks being contemplated would have made the canal obsolete in relatively little time, but the canal would have been built.

As for any possible complicity on his part in the less-than-noble practices that went on behind the scenes, there is no real mystery. He was neither innocent nor a simpleton. He was involved in bribing the press, in the Herz compact, indeed he was the one who crossed that line at the very beginning at the time of the first successful stock issue. His public pronouncements, his Bulletin, were replete with misinformation, misleading statistics, promises that he knew to be beyond realization. In his “dashing, off-hand way [he] lied any amount to interviewers,” as Emily Crawford said. He was determined to build the canal, to succeed again, to be all that his adoring multitude believed him to be. As the situation worsened, he had agreed to desperate measures to gain time, to postpone disaster. When Charles said in court that he himself had done what he thought he had to do, he was undoubtedly speaking for his father as well. “What would you have decided in our place?” Charles had asked.

The fundamental mystery one comes down to in the end is the endlessly trumpeted faith of Ferdinand de Lesseps in success. Was all this the skilled and quite conscious deception of a grand imposter? Or was it the self-deception of a vain old fool who had been captured by his past success? These are the implicit questions in nearly all that has been written about the man.

The evidence is that it was something else again.

At heart, by nature, by every instinct in his body, Vicomte Ferdinand de Lesseps was a rainmaker. He was, as Masefield said of Shakespeare, “the rare unreasonable who comes once in ten generations.” And it had been on that fundamental ground that Henri Barboux had rested his defense. “Beautiful illusions!” the attorney had exclaimed at the high point of his sonorous two-day oration. “That is what the Attorney General would call all great adventures which do not succeed. But humanity has need of such illusions. And when a great people is no longer kindled by them, then it must resign itself to be but a stolid ox, head bowed to earth.”

But the crucial point is that de Lesseps was a rainmaker to the nineteenth century: he himself was no less bedazzled than anyone by that era’s own new magical powers. An enormous part of his appeal, perhaps the very essence of his appeal, was the fact that he was a nontechnical, nonscientific spirit, the most human of humanists. It made it possible for people to take him to their hearts. And yet it was he who had, at Suez, succeeded in bringing science and technology to bear for one noble, humanitarian purpose; and after that it had been very difficult to doubt his word or distrust his vision. From Suez on, as he himself once said, he enjoyed “the privilege of being believed without having to prove what one affirms.” It was this that made him such a popular force and such a dangerous man.

His was not “the faith that could move mountains,” as was written or said by so many who never troubled to look at what he had been saying repeatedly since the Paris congress. Not at all. His was the faith that the mountains could be moved by technology. He was as much bedazzled by the momentum of progress as by his own past triumph. “Science has declared that the canal is possible, and I am the servant of science,” he had remarked at the Delmonico’s dinner in 1880. Wondrous new machines would save the day, he told his stockholders again and again. Men of genius would come forth, by which he meant technicians and scientists—workers in physics, mathematics, soil engineering, chemistry, tropical medicine, hydraulics—things about which he knew little or nothing, but which he counted on. He had the nonscientific, nontechnical man’s faith that science and technology would “find a way.” That was his faith; that had been his experience. Of the 75,000,000 cubic meters excavated at Suez, 60,000,000 had been removed by machines in the final four and a half years of the work. In the years since, he had seen the use of dynamite and nitroglycerin become widespread. He had witnessed the miracles achieved by Pasteur. So in the largest sense, his tragic folly had been to misjudge the momentum of progress: he had felt certain the machines, the medicines, whatever it took, would be ready in time and he was wrong. And one cannot help but feel that in the end he drifted into that last dim stage of his life haunted by an awful sense of betrayal.

•   •

It can also be said, and with certainty, that nothing whatever would have been attempted or accomplished at Panama had it not been for Ferdinand de Lesseps, a point missing from the postmortems of the 1890’s, largely since the actual work itself had been either forgotten or was assumed to be utterly without value. In France, as André Siegfried observed, no one seemed to recall that Panama had had anything to do with the building of a canal. “In the end one almost believed that The Company had hardly done anything at all in the isthmus . . .” The money, declared The Times of London, was “as clean gone” as if it had been sunk in the North Atlantic.

Nobody talked of the hospitals that had been built, the offices, storehouses, and dock facilities, the living quarters and machine shops; the maps, plans, surveys, and hydrographic data that had been assembled; the land that had been acquired or the Panama Railroad. And the fact that more than 50,000,000 cubic meters of earth and rock had been removed from the path of the canal, an amount equal to two-thirds of the total excavation at Suez, was virtually forgotten. All had been in vain was the prevailing, unchallenged attitude; the defeat of the old pioneer had been total.

As it happens, the commission appointed by the liquidator to appraise the work had returned with an encouraging report: the amount accomplished was “very considerable”; the plant was “in a good state of preservation”; the lock canal could be completed in about eight years. With an eye to the future, the liquidator had also arranged an extension of the old Wyse Concession, by sending Wyse back to Bogotá. The concession was declared valid until 1903 on the condition that a new French company should be organized to carry on the work, and on October 20, 1894, just seven weeks before the death of Ferdinand de Lesseps, a Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama had been formally incorporated.

Yet few people took any of this very seriously. The jungle was said to have already reclaimed most of what it had lost to the French engineers, and further, an American canal at Nicaragua was regarded as a certain thing, irrespective of the fact that one American attempt in Nicaragua—by the Maritime Canal Company, which had been chartered in 1889—had already gone down in defeat. It had been an underfinanced affair that collapsed with the Wall Street Panic of 1893.

A canal was beyond the capacity of any purely private enterprise; that much now was plain. It must be a national undertaking. The United States appeared to be the one nation ready to mount such an effort, and if the American people had drawn one overriding conclusion from the French disaster, it was that the place not to build a canal was Panama. The failure of the French—“the greatest failure in modern times”—was above all a lesson in geography. They had gone down to defeat not merely because they were French (and therefore incompetent, impractical, and decadent) and led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, but primarily because they—he—had chosen the wrong path.

American correspondent Richard Harding Davis wrote in Harper’s Weekly that in all probability Panama had a curse on it. He had gone to see for himself in 1896, and he judged it “unholy ground.” It was, he wrote, as if some evil spirit haunted the Chagres bottom lands. He was astounded to see the care with which French equipment and machinery was still being maintained. The armies of black laborers had since departed—returned home at the expense of the Jamaican government—but locomotives stood safely on blocks, oiled and cared for, he reported, as if on display at the Baldwin Works. In machine shops “each bit and screw in each numbered pigeon-hole was as sharp and covered as thick with oil as though it had been in use that morning.”

Other writers traveling through Panama had found melancholy themes in the hulks of abandoned French machinery lying belly up in wayside swamps. But to Davis such devoted care and attention were more pathetic. “For it was like a general pipe-claying his cross-belt and polishing his buttons after his army has been routed and killed, and he has lost everything, including honor.”

In time to come, he wrote, when the Americans built the Nicaragua canal, Panama would remain one of the greatest ruins on earth, a relic of swindle and death and of the tragic old man who had been so misguided as to believe in a Panama passage.

1 This same Marquis de Mores had also challenged a young American rancher to a duel not very long before this, when de Mores was establishing himself as a cattle baron in the Bad Lands of Dakota Territory. The American was Theodore Roosevelt, who responded by informing de Mores that he harbored no ill will toward him but that he would be willing to face him if de Mores insisted, whereupon de Mores let the matter drop. In his days in the Bad Lands, de Mores had built a thirty-room mansion on a high bluff overlooking the Little Missouri and was known behind his back as “the crazy Frenchman.” He lost most of his wife’s money in the venture, because of, he asserted, the Jewish-controlled beef trust.

2 Since Ferdinand de Lesseps was a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor, he could be tried only in an appeal court—that is, without a jury—and this meant that the others accused had to be tried in the same court.

3 Neither de Lesseps was a man of wealth, as attorney Barboux would substantiate for the court and as time would bear out. Charles’s total assets amounted to less than 400,000 francs, less than $80,000. And while it was true that Ferdinand de Lesseps had at one point sold his Panama founders’ shares for 1,400,000 francs, he had invested 1,778,000 francs, including part of his wife’s savings, in the canal, all of which was lost. So he too had suffered financially from the collapse. His avowed disinterest in ever making money from the venture was genuine; he could have, several times along the way, just as at Suez, but he had not.

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