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Martial Bourdin was an anarchist who accidentally blew himself up near the Greenwich Royal Observatory in London in 1894. This event formed the basis for a book by Joseph Conrad and a film by Alfred Hitchcock, but behind the absurdity and horror lies a familiar tale of secret agents, insider accounts and the advancement of the security state. This week we examine the mystery of the death of Martial Bourdin, the problems of the official record and the secrecy surrounding the infiltration of the anarchist movement in this period. I round off by presenting a theory that could explain what happened, in light of what we have already discussed in this series.


The case I want to look at today is one I have spoken about before but I have read another book since then that has somewhat added to my understanding of the story of Martial Bourdin, so I felt you would all benefit from a full spectrum view of this very odd event.

So who was Martial Bourdin? He was a young French anarchist living in London in the late Victorian period, at a time when anarchists were the most prominent and violent radical movement in the world. And despite their violence, including their killing of innocent bystanders, I have a lot of sympathy with the anarchists of this period. For one thing, I am philosophically an anarchist and have been from quite early on in my explorations of political philosophy when I was a teenager. Like a lot of teenagers I flirted with Marxism but I could never get my head around how the revolutionary Communist state was supposed to, as Marx predicted, wither away. Seizing control of the mechanisms of power is not that difficult, in a lot of cases you can just walk in and do it. History is testament to that. But what then happens, that is the profound, practical question. And one that I absolutely welcome your thoughts on because it is something I want to discuss either on this show or maybe on the roundtable show.

I will also point out that most of the anarchists of this period were peaceful, if a bit rowdy and prone to shooting their mouths off about this and that. I’ll also mention that the whole movement was heavily infiltrated – in the same sorts of numbers as in Al Qaeda or the IRA or the Mafia. Unlike Al Qaeda but more like the IRA, the anarchists were quite aware of this infiltration and so were not just the useful tools of spymasters. I do think that most of the major anarchist conspiracies of this period were genuine conspiracies of genuine radicals, just as a lot of IRA bombings were real IRA bombings, attacks against the British state. And like some of you, there is a part of me that says ‘fair enough’.

And leaving aside the moral quandaries of whether revolutionary violence can be justified, I do also have a lot of admiration for what the anarchists achieved. Internationally, in this period we’re talking about, they killed the Tsar of Russia in 1881, then there was a pause before this inspired the so called decade of regicide, beginning with President Carnot of France in 1894, Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas of Spain in 1897, Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898, King Humbert of Italy in 1900, President William McKinley of the United States in 1901. They were pretty good at killing heads of state. Whatever you think of their morals and their politics, no one has come close to the anarchists when it comes to this sort of thing. They were brave people. Even if they were murderers.

Sadly, Martial Bourdin was not a victim of his own bravery. He became Britain’s, and thus Europe, or at least Western Europe’s first suicide bomber, in 1894. So when, over a century later in 2005, when 7/7 was called Britain’s first suicide bombing, they were wrong. Not just because 7/7 wasn’t a series of suicide bombings.

But the truth about Bourdin appears to be that he was an accidental suicide bomber, that he did not mean to blow himself up. The best we can tell, from contemporary reports and what little has been written by historians about this event, is that he was on his way to bomb the Royal Greenwich observatory and something went wrong. Descriptions of his injuries suggest he was clutching the bomb to his stomach as he made his way up the hill towards the observatory and that he tripped, fell forward and the bomb went off when he landed. One of his hands was blown off, there was a large wound in his abdomen, that just seems to be what happened.

He survived for a brief time, but was in such a state of shock that he couldn’t answer questions. But he was found with a large sum of money on his person, suggesting he intended not just to survive the bombing but probably to then flee, probably to France. This was in the days before extradition treaties and suchlike.

Why attack the Royal Greenwich Observatory? Because it had become the centre for the global measurement of time. It was a modernist institution, a Royal Scientific institution, a symbol of science being used to centralise control. Naturally the anarchists feel that time is something to be determined from the bottom up not the top down, hence bombing the Greenwich observatory actually makes a lot of sense. And still does, if anyone’s looking for an exciting weekend activity.

Indeed, there’s an interview about this event with David Rooney, the curator of timekeeping at Greenwich, who is something of a minor celebrity. I’ll link this up in the shownotes because it has the full transcript but this is from the On the Line podcast, which is all about the museums and other historical sites in Greenwich. The episode is rather laughably labelled ‘David Rooney recounts the day a bomb was brought to Greenwich, and how the Royal Observatory had a lucky escape.’ I’ll just play you a little bit:

One thing I want to really pick up on – he said that this wasn’t a suicide bombing. Now, when I was heavily researching this case as part of the background for my second film, I tried to find confirmation of the official record. Because while Bourdin certainly wasn’t a suicide in the conventional sense, he certainly did not mean and intend to kill himself, that is of course something quite different to the official record.

Also, at that time suicide was a crime – the crime of self-murder, and this could result in the state claiming your assets after you have killed yourself, leaving your family destitute. When I looked up Bourdin in the Parliamentary record I found a hit – the conservative MP and the first Baron Darling, who was appointed to the Queen’s Bench, a high court, after only a short period being a minister of parliament. In other words, a right nasty piece of work.

He was trying to get the Home Secretary to endorse a verdict of suicide and to deny the family the right to bury Bourdin while the inquest took place. The Home secretary refused on both counts. So this was a somewhat politicised case, at a time when the establishment were worried about these anarchist immigrants and what they were up to.

In the event, I could not find any records or reports from the inquest into Bourdin’s death. So I tried all the other archives – the national archives, the archives at the Greenwich observatory, and another at a university library, I think it was Cambridge university, I contacted all of these places trying to find some record of what the verdict was on Bourdin’s death. And none of them could tell me. I even got chatting to this guy at the university library, some crusty academic type who was nonetheless very helpful, he looked through all the records in their file including newspaper reports from the time, but he could not find anything reporting the verdict.

I admit, I did start to get a bit spooked by this, because the event did not seem to me to be all that controversial. After all, most people have never heard and will never hear of Martial Bourdin. Despite this there were several archives who were interested in the case and had records on the event, but none of them seemed to be able to answer this one question. So you can imagine me, late at night, high on peanuts and hot chocolate, at least two hours after I should have turned the computer off and gone to bed, trying to figure this all out.

In the end the answer proved relatively simple – I simply tried every English language newspaper archive from the period that I could find online until I got a result. I ended up reading an Australian newspaper article which reported the Bourdin inquest verdict, and confirmed it was Felo De Se, to be a felon against oneself, i.e. suicide.

It was at this point that I really started wondering what I had here, because I was pretty sure Bourdin hadn’t killed himself, but the official verdict was suicide, just like with 7/7, though in that case I was less certain. This set against a political climate of fear and violence and radicalism. And to top it all off in my reading I found that Bourdin’s brother in law was a Special Branch informant, a guy called Henry Samuels.

Now, there are two different memoirs, I guess you’d call them, basically insider accounts of what was going on in British Special Branch, the intelligence police, at this time. One is by a guy called Patrick McIntyre, who fell out with his bosses including William Melville who went on to found the early incarnation of MI5. He left Special Branch and serialised his experiences in a newspaper, thus becoming a whistleblower.

The other account by John Walsh is a lot more tame and less critical, and could, not necessarily is but could even be an early example of the official endorsed insider story, the Michael Scheur type. And the two versions they tell of the Bourdin tale are quite different.

McIntyre, who left under a cloud and who generally wrote positive things about the anarchists he was spying on, wrote that his information, which cannot be questioned (his words), is that Bourdin was carrying the bomb on behalf of two foreign anarchists who had come over from Paris. They supposedly paid Bourdin to get the bomb made for them and they were going to take it back to Paris to use it there. I have my doubts about this version because Paris at this time was absolutely full of spies, not just French and British but also the Russians were operating their Western European spy network from Paris. So while this may have made it harder to secretly pay someone to make a bomb for you, it also made it much harder to get across the channel, pay someone there to do it, and then smuggle it back. It just doesn’t make much sense to me.

John Walsh’s version is that one night in the Autonomie Club, the meeting place for anarchists in London, Bourdin was accused by someone of being a spy, an agent provocateur. He set out to prove them wrong, and so Bourdin and another man were going to leave the bomb in Greenwich Park, just to let it go off as a show of power, a demonstration of how serious they were. The second man ran off, and Bourdin had some trouble priming the bomb and hence blew himself up. I have problems with this story too, because Walsh denies that the Observatory was the target, when Bourdin was headed towards the observatory, not just hanging around in the park, when the bomb went off.

So I continued looking for answers, and found some in the form of a book by Alex Butterworth called The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents. Butterworth used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to Special Branch ledgers, black books, records of payments to informants at this time. This was quite recently – we’ve only had a Freedom of Information Act in effect in this country since 2005. So Butterworth asked for copies of these ledgers, and initially the police gave him this nonsense about the ledgers being lost, destroyed in a flood, misplaced, whatever. But then a special branch officer wrote a university thesis for his masters degree that cited the ledgers as part of his source material, proving that they still existed and that the police knew where they were. So Alex Butterworth took the case to court and won. Admittedly, he won copies of century-old records of payments made to spies for the British police, which isn’t necessarily the success of the millennium, but still, this shows you just how protective the British security services are when it comes to this stuff.

So he wrote this stunningly vivid, complex, wonderful book all about the anarchists of this period, and it’s a book I absolutely recommend. It isn’t the easiest book to read, it is written in this very literary style that I like and enjoy but some people will find it a bit tough to keep up with. But it’s a beautiful book and extremely interesting and a great case study for understanding what’s going on now with Al Qaeda and now ISIS and now we’re going to use Al Qaeda to fight ISIS and the rest of these lies and this craziness.

So this book, The World that Never Was, confirms that the Autonomie Club was under surveillance, that Special Branch were effectively watching Bourdin, that his brother in law Henry Samuels was a Special Branch spy, that Bourdin was seen with Samuels earlier that day. A lot that suggests there is more to this event than just a bombing-gone-wrong.

 And these rumours clearly abounded at the time, because a little over a decade later, in 1907, Joseph Conrad wrote a book called The Secret Agent, a book he dedicated to HG Wells, which portrays the brother in law as a spy, the bomber as an idiot, basically, the anarchists as crazy and doesn’t really explain what happened in the bombing itself. This had led to multiple film adaptations, most famously Alfred Hitchcock’s film Sabotage, in the 1930s, in which the same basic story happens, but the bombing takes place on a bus, by accident. Thus predicting the 1996 bombing that I mentioned before that was blamed on the IRA but might have been a British military intelligence ‘own goal’ as we learned in previous episodes.

 So, there’s a lot in Butterworth’s book that confirms some of my worst suspicions and indicates that my worst suspicion – that Bourdin was a victim of an intelligence plot, might be right. And confirms that this is by no means just my suspicion, but in fact is quite a common view among those who were close to this event.

One further detail jumped out at me – Henry Samuels, the police informant brother in law of Martial Bourdin, was friends with Auguste Coulon, another police spy. Coulon was the agent provocateur who set up the Walsall Anarchists a couple of years prior to the Bourdin incident, in a provocation/entrapment operation being run by William Melville. Again, Melville set up the precursor to MI5 and trained the first generation of MI5 agents and officers, presumably in these sorts of tactics. I have spoken about the Walsall anarchists before, but essentially they were trapped by the police in an operation clearly designed to make anarchists look bad, and dangerous, and scary.

Coulon is a strange one, this is a man who celebrated the blowing up of a cow in Belgium as great news for the anarchist cause, he was always talking about bombs and explosions and violence, and when Patrick MacIntyre outed him as a police agent Coulon actually wrote into the newspaper the following week and admitted that he had been working for Scotland Yard. So whether he was a narcissist or a psychopath or just a loose cannon I don’t know. He was definitely an agent provocateur working for the British intelligence police, we can be sure of that much.

Throw into the mix that the Jubilee Plot, which I mentioned in the Ireland episode which was a provocation/entrapment operation run against the Fenians which happened a few years before The Walsall Anarchists and the Martial Bourdin event, and a very different picture starts to emerge.

What if, and this is a big if because there’s a huge amount we don’t know so I am conspiracy theorising here, but what if Martial Bourdin’s death was the byproduct of an intelligence operation run by Special Branch to discredit the anarchists, and advance the nascent security state? What if he was set up by his brother in law, possibly alongside Auguste Coulon, two police agents? What if the whole ‘made to look like an accidental self-bombing’ is a cover story, part of the set up? What if this story about two foreign anarchists was put to MacIntyre to throw him, the man in special branch who might smell a rat, off the scent and headed in the wrong direction? What if Joseph Conrad’s book a decade later, dedicated to a man some have alleged worked for British intelligence and certainly moved in the same social circles, what if that book was designed to ridicule the anarchists, and also twist the knife by offering a sensationalised version of what really happened?

It is interesting that in the aftermath, the immediate aftermath of the Bourdin bombing there was predictable shock and horror in London, and some antagonism towards the anarchists. The police raided the Autonomie Club but no one was arrested, at least not for any great length of time, and the investigation essentially went nowhere.

I would like to draw a parallel here that I implied in my book but that hasn’t really been picked up on so I might as well make it explicit here as a means of rounding things off. This is very similar to what happened in the run-up to 7/7, with a one-two knock-out combination, first the entrapment of several people for a massive bomb plot, the threat, the implied terrorism, then a couple of years later the big bombing, the real event, the full wallop. For the Walsall Anarchist, substitute Operation Crevice. For Martial Bourdin, substitute 7/7. For Joseph Conrad, the fiction sensationalising and thus disarming the conspiracy theories, I guess you could substitute the TV show Spooks, also known as MI-5, a show which had production assistance from both the British security services and the CIA.

The more things change, the more things stay the same. I’m not sure if I can offer any firm conclusion on the mystery of Martial Bourdin except to say that I am persuaded by the conspiracy theory, at least most of me is persuaded if not all of me, and that it fits a pattern and a model that we can be sure is based in strong, solid evidence. Whether his death was an accident, or made to look like an accident as part of the plot I don’t know and perhaps it makes little difference now. Except that it does, because his death was ruled as a suicide which is simply wrong, and proving that is not a big deal. Because this happened so long ago, it isn’t as controversial when you tell people about it. People don’t have the same resistance to these ideas when it’s a century-old mystery, so I do think it’s a great story to share, and a great story to read about, even without a firm conclusion. It can break the ice of a much larger conversation, assuming you’re mixing in the sorts of company where you can even talk about a man blowing himself up without being ejected from the premises.