Exhibitions / Suspects, Defendants, Guilty / Images and descriptions of the accused under the Third Republic /
Images and descriptions of the accused under the Third Republic

The Vidal case : Henri Vidal

Patricia Bass

The first image of Vidal (following his confession), January 1902

Source : Gallica : Le Matin

Unlike during the Gouffé Case, newspapers did not race to offer an “exact” image of the accused’s appearance to their readership. In fact, these first three drawings of Vidal appeared in the Petit Journal, the Petit Parisien and the Matin without a caption or a single mention of the image in the text of the accompanying articles.

Portraits of the accused did not garner the same attention that they did during the Gouffé case for several reasons. First, portraits of an apprehended suspect and one on the lam had radically different functions: Bompard and Eyraud, potentially abroad and incognito, needed to be physically recognized in order to be caught and prosecuted. When Eyraud was finally apprehended in Havana, it was thanks to a portrait in the popular illustrated press that allowed a French expatriot to recognize his face. Second, as mentioned on the previous page, images played a very different role for illustrated weeklies and the daily press: the small black-and-white drawings of dailies were primarily illustrative, whereas the full-page engravings of illustrated weeklies were supposed to provide “the true impression of things, with color which gives life itself to the events represented” [Petit Journal 1890].

The first image of Vidal (following his confession), January 1902

Source : Gallica : Le Petit Journal

The first image of Vidal (following his confession), January 1902

Source : Gallica : Le Petit Parisien

Vidal’s handwriting analyzed by the press, January 1902 – November 1902

Source : Gallica : Le Matin

During the first period of media attention for the Gouffé case, at the time of his confession, three articles in the most widely-distributed daily papers cited experts who interpreted Vidal’s character through image analysis. The two handwriting samples above are from the Matin, whose editorial board requested an analysis from a “young graphologist” in January 1902. The same month, a journalist from the Petit Journal published an article on how he showed a group photo including Vidal to a doctor, who declared that the suspect showed “a predisposition to insanity which is visible in the form of his head”.

Such solicitations of doctors and graphologists by journalists acting independently of the police investigation illustrate a new role of the press in the turn-of-the-century. Instead of merely describing the criminal act (e.g., “Gruesome murder in the Loire”), journalists started to include descriptions of the investigation: the discovery of new clues, the search for suspects, and the interrogation of witnesses. This new interest for the investigation coincided with a new method of journalism. Journalists gradually transitioned from occupying a passive role of observer, where they acted mostly as an information channel between the police and the public, to an active role of investigator, soliciting interviews, making analyses and even searching for clues on their own [Kalifa 1995].

In this example, journalists solicited an expert in order to understand the criminal’s psychology through graphology, a common criminological technique at the time. Graphology was both a data-gathering method and a result of an obsession with “the material culture of criminals” (including tattoos, graffiti, and art). An influential example can be seen in the numerous “criminal signatures” that Cesare Lombroso printed in his Atlas accompanying the book L’uomo delinquente (1878). When it came to the analysis of Vidal’s handwriting, the Matin journalists were arguably even a step ahead of the professionals of the criminal sciences – Alexandre Lacassagne, the most well-known criminologist in France, ordered his own analysis of Vidal’s handwriting four years after the Matin published the analysis above.

As the role of the press changed to accommodate nascent forms of investigative journalism, the role of the image in newspapers changed as well. Drawings and engravings were no longer solely reconstitutions of the events of the case, but often the fruit of journalistic investigations: images of new clues, floor plans of the scene of the crime, handwriting samples, and more. Newspapers started publishing images that required the analytical eye of experts, and this “expert vision” revealed the value of images to readers through the text of articles.

Sources:

Dominique Kalifa, L’encre et le sang, Paris: Fayard, 1995: p. 53-118.

Alfred Binet, Les révélations de l’écriture d’après un contrôle scientifique, Paris: Alcan, 1906.

Vidal’s handwriting analyzed by the press, January 1902 – November 1902

Source : Gallica : Le Matin

Portraits of women published during the Vidal case, November 1902

Source : Gallica : Le Matin

During criminal cases, the press tended to describe the physical appearance of women (be they victims, criminals, witnesses, or other) more often than they described the appearance of men. During the Gouffé case, for example, journalists described Michel Eyraud only half as often as they described Bompard, whose outfits and hairstyles were carefully tracked by the press. During the Vidal case, journalists gave a detailed description of Vidal’s mother (right), specifying, “I listen with my eyes…” before they even begin to describe the suspect himself. Whether by text or by image, the women of the story (even the minor actors) were made visible for the readership’s imagination: readers could see Antonia van Brusselin, one of Vidal’s female victims (left), in a small drawing published in a column of the Matin, or read a minutely detailed textual description of Vidal’s fiancée (“What we first notice in her vulgar physiognomy are her lively black eyes…”).

This textual and iconographic focus on women's bodies contributes to a larger discourse, studied by Martine Kaluszynski among others, in which the female body became a site for the scientific study of the female mind in turn-of-the-century France.Whereas Kaluszynski describes how studies done on the bodies of female criminals "allowed (scientists) to grasp the "realities" of the fundamentally elusive female sex", the media coverage of crime stories allowed the public to grasp this "fundamentally elusive sex" through images and description of the “female characters” of crime narratives. Like scientists, the press presented women's bodies in descriptions and images as if their appearance was a key to understanding them.

Sources:

Cynthia Russett, Sexual Science. The Victorian Construction of Womanhood, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Ruth Harris, Murders and Madness, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1989.

Martine Kaluszynski, « La femme (criminelle) sous le regard du savant au XIXème siècle », in Penser la violence des femmes, Coline Cardi et Geneviève Pruvost (eds), Paris: La Decouverte, 2012: p. 286-299.

Portraits of women published during the Vidal case, November 1902

Source : Gallica : Le Matin

The second wave of images of Vidal in the popular press, November 1902

Source : Gallica : Le Matin

Vidal’s trial in November 1902 provoked a second wave of media coverage of the case. After a period of over six months during which there were no front-page articles, nor illustrations of the case, the Matin, the Petit Parisien, and the Petit Journal all republished portraits of Vidal that they had initially printed in January.

In the Matin, a description of the accused accompanied his portrait: “Large and thin, correctly dressed, his hair overly styled, the corners of his lips shadowed by long red hairs which fall low onto his chin, (Vidal) has the horribly sad physiognomy that his portraits have allowed you to get to know. But his eyes, above all, disconcert; I would almost say that they cause fear. The eyes of a wolf. Two fissures of fire which, at the bottom, dream of a special distress, the pain of a violent, blinded, embittered, furious and yet timid, spineless, and cowardly soul.”

This passage states that portraits of the accused “allow (the readership) to get to know” the sad physiognomy of Vidal. Although the journalist assumes that readers can, from the representation of Vidal’s face, judge or recognize his appearance as “sad”, he follows this with a “but”: “but” the complex truth of Vidal’s soul resides in his eyes. What the readers can experience and know (a sad physiognomy) is contrasted with that which is not transmittable: the soul so complex it requires seven adjectives to represent it textually. Indeed, Vidal’s portrait, which juxtaposes this sentence, shows the most complexity - the highest concentration of irregular intersecting marks - around the eye. But due to the small size of the portrait, the complex web of marks becomes an inform mass, without the detail of an iris, pupil, or eyelashes. Without the textual portrait, the reader truly cannot read his eyes.

The second wave of images of Vidal in the popular press, November 1902

Source : Gallica : Le Matin

The second wave of images of Vidal in the popular press, November 1902

Source : Gallica : Le Petit Parisien

The second wave of images of Vidal in the popular press, November 1902

Source : Gallica : Le Petit Journal

Images of the trial in the popular press, November 1902

Source : Gallica : Le Matin

To illustrate an article on Vidal’s trial, the Matin printed drawings of the President of the jury (left), the prosecutor (middle), and Vidal’s lawyer (right). These drawings made by the Matin’s courtroom sketch artistsinclude aspects of the background and the detailed clothing of each individual. Unlike Vidal, whose portraits detail only his potentially criminal physiognomy, these portraits introduce members of the court by emphasizing their judicial accouterments, underlining their roles as symbols of justice. Although their physical traits are not described in the article nor (in much detail) by the portraits, the journalist does describe their gestures, prioritizing body language over spoken language. He writes, “In the audience, we’re saved by everything interesting that there is to read on the physiognomies around us... The president’s questions are more clearly asked by gesture than by words.”