What’s the appeal of true crime? There’s the mystery to solve and the lure of thinking about violence from a safe distance. There’s also the desire to see justice done: one of the staples of true crime is a botched or mishandled police investigation. There are those who say they are wrongfully accused (Adnan Syed from Serial) and those who manage to escape the consequences of their actions (Robert Durst in The Jinx). Taken together, these cases paint a portrait of the American justice system as deeply inegalitarian, too easy on the wealthy and too prejudiced against people of color and the poor. In these conditions, journalists and members of the public need to conduct their own enquiries to find the truth and obtain justice.
But the twenty-first century isn’t the first time stories of crime fascinated the public and led private citizens to investigate the claim on their own. The same was true in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century France, an era just as obsessed — and maybe more so — with crime. Grisly stories of murder were regularly splashed across the front pages of the major newspapers and detective fiction was wildly popular.1 As is true today, many worried that those at the top of the social and economic hierarchy had too much influence over the criminal justice system.
Looking at one case from this era — the 1908-1909 Steinheil Affair, a double murder turned sex scandal set among France’s elite — shows how inegalitarian political and social systems can spur members of the public to play detective.