On the night of December 24, 1800, the first French performance of The Creation, an oratorio by famous composer Joseph Haydn, premiered at the Theater of the Republic and the Arts in Paris. Shortly after the orchestra began playing, a thunderous sound from outside the building interrupted the opening movement, “Representation of Chaos.” Chaos, indeed, for a homemade bomb, intended for Napoleon Bonaparte was the source of the commotion.
Napoleon had been first consul of the French Republic for almost a year. Seeking to restore order and unity to post-revolutionary France, he had instituted popular reforms, including establishing the lycée system for secondary education and creating the Bank of France to improve France’s financial stability. His rise to power had also earned him many enemies. Jacobin radicals, who were loyal to the government that had preceded Napoleon’s coup, viewed the first consul as a traitor to the revolution, while royalists sought restoration of the monarchical ancient régime and the Bourbon dynasty. (Before the French Revolution, Paris had their eyes on Marie Antoinette.)
In Napoleon’s initial year as first consul, opposition took the form of assassination plots and conspiracies against him. Malmaison, an estate west of Paris owned by his wife, Joséphine, was the site of several alleged plots, but none were carried out. In October 1800 four men believed to be Jacobins armed themselves with knives and planned to stab Napoleon to death in his box at the opera in the so-called Dagger Plot. The conspirators were caught, arrested, and later executed for plotting to kill the new French leader. (Beethoven went from Napoleon's biggest fan to his most savage critic.)
Planning the attack
The press had announced that Napoleon would be attending the French premiere of the oratorio on December 24. Georges Cadoudal, a former leader of royalist rebels named the Chouans, whose armies Napoleon had defeated earlier that year, planned his own great “debut” for that evening as well. Cadoudal enlisted three other veterans in his operation: Pierre Robinault de Saint-Régent, Joseph Picot de Limoëlan, and François-Jean Carbon from Paris. These co-conspirators intended to kill Napoleon, and so remove the man they viewed as the single greatest obstacle to restoring the Bourbon dynasty.
On December 17, Carbon bought a small cart and a horse from a Parisian grain dealer. At dusk on December 24, Limoëlan and Carbon drove the cart from an empty building on the outskirts of the capital and arrived at the triumphal arch of the Porte Saint-Denis in central Paris. To the cart they attached a large wine barrel loaded with 200 pounds of gunpowder and sharp stones. The barrel turned bomb, known as the “infernal machine,” would be detonated with a hand-lit fuse.
An Escalation in Terror
Cadoudal's conspiracy included other smaller plots intended to distract the French police from the royalists’ ultimate goal. In September 1800 French senator Dominique Clément de Ris was kidnapped. In November former Bishop Audrein of Finistère was assassinated.
It was known that Napoleon always took the same route to the theater. His carriage would leave the Tuileries Palace, cross Place du Carrousel, and turn left along Rue Saint-Nicaise. Robinault placed the horse and cart at the end of Saint-Nicaise, piling stones and rubble around it to give the impression that it had broken down. The cart was positioned so that it partially blocked the road. The bomb was concealed with hay, straw, and a sack of oats.
Limoëlan waited in Place du Carrousel so he could see Bonaparte’s cavalry escort leaving the Tuileries Palace. Once the convoy was sighted, he would give Robinault the signal to light the fuse, which would take several seconds to burn. To ensure that no one interfered with or moved the cart, Robinault paid a 14-year-old girl named Marianne Peusol to hold the horse’s reins while he stood by and held the fuse.
A night at the opera
As the conspirators laid their trap, Napoleon and his family prepared for the concert. According to Gen. Jean Rapp, Napoleon’s aide, Napoleon grew impatient as his wife, Joséphine, fussed with a shawl she had just received. Napoleon decided to leave and boarded his carriage with three of his generals for the half-mile ride to the theater. Joséphine would follow in a second carriage with her daughter, Hortense; General Rapp; and Caroline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister.
The first consul’s carriage sped away quickly, leaving behind the cavalry escort. Caught off guard by the sudden appearance of Napoleon’s carriage, Limoëlan failed to provide Robinault with a timely signal. Meanwhile, the leading outrider of Napoleon’s entourage, who saw a cart blocking part of the road ahead and a carriage blocking the other side of the road, pushed between the two vehicles to create a gap for Napoleon’s driver. Robinault later claimed that he was knocked over by the outrider’s horse, but in the confusion he lost sight of Limoëlan and lit the fuse seconds too late. The bomb went off after Napoleon was far past, and only his carriage windows were damaged.
Joséphine’s carriage had just reached the palace gate when the bomb detonated. Her carriage windows broke as well, and a shard of glass cut Hortense’s hand. One of the cavalry escorts rode up to inform them that Napoleon was unhurt and that they should proceed to the theater.
Marianne Peusol and the horse both died immediately. The buildings near the explosion were badly damaged or destroyed. Accounts of the number of casualties varied, but few bystanders on Saint-Nicaise, a lively, busy street, escaped uninjured. When General Rapp reached the theater, he found Napoleon “calm and composed,” surveying the applauding audience through his opera glass. Napoleon then said “very coolly” to Rapp, “The rascals wanted to blow me up. Bring me a book of the Oratorio.”
Napoleon blamed the attack on “blood-drinking” Jacobins. In a fury, he said to his police chief, Joseph Fouché: “For such an atrocious crime, we must have vengeance like a thunderbolt. Blood must flow. We must shoot as many guilty men as there have been victims.” Fouché suggested that the royalists had planned the attack, but Napoleon continued to blame the Jacobins. Fouché followed Napoleon’s orders and arrested 130 of them.
The police tracked down the grain dealer, who identified the remains of the cart and described the buyer, Carbon, in detail. The police also located the stable where the conspirators had kept the mare, who had been identified by her horseshoes. The police arrested Carbon, who then gave up his accomplices. Robinault was captured and executed alongside Carbon on April 20, 1801. Limoëlan fled to the United States. Cadoudal escaped to Britain, but he later returned to France to embark on another failed plot against Napoleon. He was captured, and executed in 1804.
The “infernal machine” plot marked the first time that a bomb had been used for an assassination attempt. It was neither the first nor the last attack against Napoleon. However, it was unique in that it targeted an individual but was indiscriminate in its impact. This was an act that took political dissent in a new direction.
During the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror (1793-94), the word “terrorism” emerged to describe the use of fear for political purposes as employed by the reigning regime. It punished people thought to oppose the revolution, which sought not only to eradicate existing enemies but to suppress future opposition.
In the revolution’s turbulent aftermath, the meaning of the word “terrorism” shifted to apply not to violence perpetrated by a government but to that perpetrated against a government. The royalist rebels’ act of terrorism was an attempt to dismantle a leader and an ideology that they loathed.
But their plot had unintended consequences. Though the true culprits were royalists, Napoleon nonetheless seized an opportunity to repress the Jacobins, insisting upon their exile from France. Napoleon was able to punish and purge his enemies on both sides, toppling potential threats to his authoritarian ambition. Four years later, he would crown himself emperor of France. (Here's the story behind Napoleon's loss at the Battle of Waterloo.)