Émile Zola, France’s great novelist of naturalism, was apparently murdered by an anti-Semitic chimney-sweeper who blocked his chimney, allowing carbon monoxide to accumulate in the bedroom where the author and his wife lay sleeping.
This horrific event was the sad climax to Zola’s championing of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish Army officer who was unjustly convicted of treason in 1894 and served several years on Devil’s Island. Zola’s J’accuse, an open letter to the president of France about the Dreyfus affair, created an international sensation, and resulted in Zola’s conviction for libel and sentencing to a year in prison. He fled France and went to England to avoid imprisonment, returning a year later when the libel charges were dismissed. For the rest of his life Zola remained a lightning rod for anti-Dreyfusards, many of whom were anti-Semitics as well.
Zola’s other notable works are novels that are credited with introducing naturalism into Western literature. They include Thérèse Raquin, about a torrid extramarital affair; L’Assommoir, dealing with poverty and alcoholism; Nana, about prostitution; Germinal, which depicts mining industry conditions; and Les Trois Villes, a trilogy with strong anti-clerical sentiments, which drew the wrath of the Catholic Church.
Zola was born in Paris on April 2, 1840, to an Italian engineer. He grew up in Aix-en-Provence, and after his father’s death when Zola was seven, he and his mother moved back to Paris. He attended Collège Mignet and the Lycée Saint Louis, after which he began to work as a journalist and in various office jobs to scrape up a living. Often money was so scarce that Zola ate sparrows that he killed on his window sill.
In 1870 he married Alexandrine Meley, a seamstress and occasional prostitute. They were childless, but Zola later fathered two children by Jeanne Rozereau, a seamstress whom his wife had hired. By now, in his late thirties, Zola had achieved success with best-selling novels, and was recognized as France’s leading writer. He led an artist’s bohemian life, and his pals included the poet Mallarmé and the painters Manet, Renoir, Sisley, and his childhood chum, Paul Cézanne. Zola’s fame was matched by the wealth that his novels brought him. He bought a country house in Medan, near Versailles, and the Zolas divided their time between there and Paris.
Although baptized a Catholic, Zola was highly critical of the established church in his writings, and he remained agnostic in most of his religious attitudes. As one critic has remarked, “…it is impossible to find in Zola's writing any coherent collection of philosophical or religious ideas. Zola vainly sought all his life for a universal truth that could satisfy him.”
The circumstances of Zola’s death are controversial, but what seems to have happened is that he and his wife returned to their Paris home on the rue de Bruxelles on September 28, 1902, and retired to their bedroom. The night was cold and rainy, so Zola closed the windows and lit a smokeless coal fire in the bedroom fireplace. He also locked the bedroom door, as he usually did since death threats over the Dreyfus affair were not uncommon. At three o’clock in the morning they both awoke, feeling ill, but Zola decided it was indigestion and returned to bed.
At nine the next morning, servants thought something must be wrong and they forced the door, finding Alexandrine unconscious in bed and Zola close to death on the floor, apparently having tried to reach a window to open it. Doctors were summoned, and Alexandrine was taken to a clinic, where she recovered. Zola was given artificial respiration for twenty minutes, but to no avail, and he was pronounced dead. He was sixty-two.
Zola’s body lay in state at the house until October 5, when his funeral was held at Montmartre Cemetery, attended by a crowd of 50,000.
Rumors began to fly that Zola had been murdered, and authorities investigated. They lit fires in the fireplace and placed guinea pigs in the room overnight. Chemists tested the air. The flue of the chimney was dismantled and examined. Nothing, however, was found amiss, and the coroner ruled Zola’s death was due to natural causes.
In 1953 an account was published that a pharmacist in Normandy, Pierre Hacquin, claimed that a chimney-sweeper named Henry Buronfosse had confessed to him on his deathbed years earlier that he had intentionally blocked the chimney above Zola’s apartment while repairs were being made to the roof and then returned early the next day to unblock it, leaving no trace. He said it was for political reasons.
In 1908 Zola’s body was moved to the Panthéon and interred in a crypt that also contained the bodies of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. This ceremony was attended by the still controversial Captain Dreyfus—who had been finally exonerated through Zola’s efforts and restored to full military honors. Two shots were fired at him by an anti-Dreyfusard journalist named Louis Grégori. Dreyfus was wounded slightly in the arm. Grégori was acquitted on the grounds that shooting Dreyfus was a “natural act” for a loyal French nationalist.