This Day in Jewish History

1892: A Jew and an anti-Semite Duel in Paris

The death of Captain Armand Mayer at the hands of the Marquis Amédée de Morès horrified France, at least for a while.

Photographie Otto à Paris / Wikimedia Commons

On June 23, 1892, a duel took place in Paris that pitted a young Jewish army officer against one of the more notorious anti-Semites of the day. At the end of the duel – fought with sabers, not pistols – the Jew was dead, to the shock and outrage of much of French society.

The public response to the fight between Captain Armand Mayer and the Marquis Amédée de Morès puts the Dreyfus Affair that erupted two years later in an unusual light. By the end of the 19th century, France had gone much further than other European countries in granting equality to its Jewish citizens, and there were signs that anti-Jewish propaganda was losing its power over the public imagination. Yet, just two years after Mayer’s death, in 1894, the arrest of Alfred Dreyfus served to revive the worst instincts of the French public.

Do French soldiers hate the Jew?

The Mayer-Morès duel was actually the second phase of an earlier contest. On the one side was the immensely influential anti-Semitic writer and publisher douard Drumont, whose publication La Libre Parole had run a scurrilous attack on Jewish officers in the military. Pitted against him was the challenger André Crémieu-Foa, a Jew.

Drumont’s publication suggested that most French soldiers held “a feeling of instinctive repulsion against the sons of Israel,” and went on to characterize the Jew in the army as “the usurer who consumes the ruin of the officer in debt, the supplier who speculates on the stomach of the soldier, the spy who traffics without shame in the secrets of national defense.”

The June 1, 1892 duel between Crémieu-Foa and Drumont was called off after both men were wounded. Wanting to save his honor, however, Drumont’s supporters demanded a follow-up, to be fought between the seconds of the two original opponents – in this case the Marquis de Morès and Armand Mayer.

Jewish plot against Dakota beef farmer?

Born in 1857, Capt. Mayer was an officer in the French army and a teacher of engineering at the prestigious cole Polytechnique.

The Marquis de Morès, born in 1856, had been educated at France’s best military academies. In 1882, after resigning his commission, he traveled to North Dakota, where he and his wealthy young wife bought a 170,000-dunam (42,000-acre) beef farm. His plan was to challenge the existing Chicago “beef trust” by building his own packing plant and shipping refrigerated meat by train directly to market.

When the railroad and beef-packing interests conspired to foil Morès’ plan, he sold his entire operation in 1886. Returning to France, he then began to write about the “Jewish plot” that had brought him down.

Two years later, Morès was sent to Vietnam, where the French army had commissioned him to build a rail line along the length of the country. A change of government in Paris led to the cancellation of that plan, and once again Morès returned to France.

There he began making entrées into politics, in which he hoped to create, in the words of Piers Paul Read, “an alliance between France’s ancient aristocracy and the French people against a republic dominated by the Jews.” One of his allies was Drumont, author of the best-selling tract “La France Juive” (1886).

In the army, no distinctions

The standoff between Morès and Mayer was fought on the Île de la Grande Jatte, and lasted less than five seconds. According to some sources, Mayer was already injured before the contest, and so had trouble even holding his sword. In any event, Morès’ saber quickly penetrated Mayer’s lung, before being stopped by his spinal cord. The bout was stopped, the two men shook hands, and Mayer was taken to hospital. He died late that afternoon.

Armand Mayer’s death elicited shock and outrage, and his funeral – a military ceremony officiated over by the chief rabbi of France, Zadoc Kahn – drew tens of thousands of mourners. It was followed by a speech by the war minister in the chamber of deputies, decrying “any distinction between Jews, Protestants and Catholics in the army.”

Morès was tried for homicide, but acquitted. But the experience was humiliating enough that he soon left France again, this time for North Africa, where he intended to incite a revolt by nomadic tribes against British colonialist forces. Four days after his arrival, in 1896, Morès was attacked and killed by his Tuareg guides.