The Death Defying Predictions of Madame Constans

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The transition from the Imperial Bonapartist Second French Empire of Napoleon III to the Third French Republic that would persist from 1870 until the opening of World War II was a rocky road, as the French were rapidly discovering that “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” meant also putting up with the opinions of some rather unsavory characters, many of which took a grim view of developments and longed for the days when France was kicking ass and taking “noms”.  You see, in the 1870’s France was a bit banged up, trying to wind down the Franco-Prussian War, wondering if they should re-establish the monarchy (there were too many deposed French royals around to agree on who they should offer the throne to), and the Provisional Government of National Defense – a temporary body assembled to run France since Napoleon III had been captured by the Prussians – wasn’t too successful prosecuting the ongoing war, and ultimately had to figure out a way to pay the crushing reparations they demanded in order to get the Prussians to leave France.  This led to popular revolt, the brief and bloody Paris Commune, and a whole lot of head banging.  They settled on the Third French Republic, in the lukewarm words of Adolphe Thiers (its early President), as “the form of government that divides France least”, but for the next twenty years, a motley assortment of monarchists, socialists, republicans, and anarchists would continue to argue about the future of French governance.  And while the French traditionally enjoy a contentious philosophical debate, they also have historically fancied armed rebellion and the guillotine.

It’s all well and good to differ ideologically, but sometimes the argument has just plain gone on long enough and it’s time to separate someone’s head from their body.  No doubt modern social media repartee would be much more polite if we had similar rules.  This is the tough part of being a reasonably moderate and level-headed guy, that is, when the opposition on either side thinks cracking a few skulls is good punctuation to political discourse.  This is exactly what was planned for Jean Antoine Ernest Constans (1833–1913) a career French politician and colonial administrator, who if not for his wisdom in marrying a precognitive wife, would have been blown to bits by the radical followers of General Boulanger.  Some people say to marry money.  The prudent man marries psychic.  Unfortunately, the Psychic Hotline’s Ms. Cleo never answers my earnest matrimonial proposals.  Maybe I shouldn’t call collect, but how else can I prove to myself that it’s real love?

Jean Antoine Ernest Constans had an impressive political portfolio and seemed reasonably committed to the idea of France as a constitutional republic, and while he didn’t have much love for extremists, to our knowledge he never arranged to have anybody blown up on purpose.  He was a mildly leftist leaning professor of law, elected Deputy for Toulouse in the French Third Republic’s Chamber, Louis de Freycinet’s Minister of the Interior, and eventually the first governor-general of French Indochina.  When he was elected as a Senator from Haute-Garonne in 1889, he emerged as a prominent opponent of the somewhat insane Boulangist Party and the proto-facist Ligue des Patriotes.

General Georges Ernest Jean-Marie Boulanger (1837-1891) was a veteran of the Austro-Sardinian War, the occupation of Cochin China, and the Franco-Prussian War, and was promoted to Brigadier General of the French Army in 1880.  Charles de Freycinet appointed him War minister in 1886, because for some strange reason everybody assumed he was a devoted Republican, when in fact he seemed to be a bit of a monarchist.  He was quite popular, particularly among the armed forces, but also a little crazy.  He wanted revenge against Imperial Germany for the French defeats in the Franco-Prussian War, provoking them any chance he got and almost starting another war on several occasions, and developed a bizarre political strategy after he was sacked from the war ministry in 1887, and expelled from the army in 1888.  He decided not to legally run for anything.  He received 100,000 votes in the Seine region without actually being a candidate.  Bonapartists and other conservative elements thought this was just dandy and approved of his platform: (1) revenge against the Germans, (2) revision of the constitution, and (3) return of the monarchy.  While as a military man, he was not a viable candidate for the French Chamber of Deputies, but Boulangistes were popping up everywhere and he and a number of his supporters were elected to the Chamber.  They weren’t a majority, so they really couldn’t get much done in the way of legislation, but given his popularity, particularly among French soldiers, he posed a very real danger for a coup d’état and a threat as a potential military dictator.  When he was elected as Deputy for Paris in 1889, it looked like he might ascend to the height of power in France, but at the height of his power and influence, he disappeared for a little while to hang out with his beloved mistress Madame Bonnemain. “Depose, before ho’s”, dude.  His nookie sabbatical gave his moderate opponents time to move against him, and chief among them was then Minister of the Interior Ernest Constans.  He fought the Boulangist attempts to revise the French Constitution and moved to take legal action against the extreme right-wing Ligue des Patriotes (who would later become involved in the infamous anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair, and who the Nazi’s got a lot of their bright ideas from).  Effectively, General Boulanger’s career went into steep decline after this, but the Boulangists tended to hold grudges, evidently concluding that it was time for Ernest Constans to meet his maker.  Of course, we don’t have definitive proof who sent a letter bomb to Constans, but the assassination attempt failed, largely due to the fact that his loving wife Madame Constans had a horrible vision some three days before the package arrived.

This largely went unnoticed by history, but the incident was related to noted French astronomer and psychical researcher Camille Flammarion (1842-1925) by Madame and Monsieur Constans over dinner at his private observatory in Juvisy.

It was in 1889, at the time of the great struggle against General Boulanger and his party over the revision of the French Constitution. One morning, in his office, a book was handed him with his mail. As he was in a hurry to leave for the Council of Ministers, he flung it on a table, asking Madame Constans to see what it was, and went out. Madame Constans, who was having her hair arranged by her maid, took the book on her knees and started to open it: she thought it was a prayer-book sent by a cousin. But three days before she had received, she said, ‘some horrible things” which had made her prudent. When with great care she had half opened the book she thought she saw “some vile things”.  She immediately gave the whole package to her maid, saying: ”Carry that out to the entrance hall, it’s some more filth.”  This confidential servant had hardly gone out when Madame Constans, half-dressed, her hair down her back, ran to the entrance and cried : “Don’t open it, don’t touch it!” Why? She sent for Monsieur Cassel, the Director of Public Safety, and urged him to examine the object, as she had a presentiment of some mystery connected with it. When Monsieur Cassel shook the book, he saw certain little white particles fall on the table. He put a match to them, and they caught fire. He realized the danger; put the book under his arm, and left for the prefecture, for the laboratory of Monsieur Girard. At the end of an hour Monsieur Cassels came back and told Madame Constans that the book contained enough dynamite to blow up the wing of the Ministry that was occupied by the minister. Madame Constans fainted and remained ill for eight days. Such was the tale which Monsieur and Madame Constans told us at table, before a dozen persons (Flammarion, 1922, p66-67).

The more cynical might write this off to some cue that Madame Constans had picked up on subconsciously, but this was not the first time she had avoided certain death or dismemberment by virtue of morbid presentiment.  Flammarion was intrigued, but he was also no slouch when it came to investigating strange phenomena, so when Madame Constans related a near miss with medical malpractice due to psychic abilities, he contacted her doctor for verification.  A letter from physician confirmed her story.

I am making it my task to answer your questions on the subject of Madame Constans’s presentiment in connection with her refusal to take some medicine sent by a pharmacist. This is the story; I shall tell it to you impersonally, as a historian:  Madame Constans was twenty-three years old, and was living in Toulouse, when one day she contracted diphtheria. Dr. Resseguet, who is still at Toulouse, was called to her bedside. He ordered that her throat should be painted with muriatic acid. Madame Constans’s mother gave him a bottle containing the supposed acid; but the sick woman, though very feeble, refused to let them go on, objecting that they were going to kill her, — that it was not muriatic acid. After a few unsuccessful attempts to treat her, and wishing to make sure himself as well as to prove to the patient that the medicine was all right, he thrust the stick of a match into the little bottle. It carbonized at once; it was sulphuric acid! That is what I remember. I do not recall the exact details, but I have not forgotten that a serious mistake had been made by the druggist in connection with one of my prescriptions, and that Madame Constans, because of a strong presentiment, felt she must refuse to use the remedy. I have endeavored to gather more materials about it ; I have looked through my old note-books of this period, but in vain. I know that it was a case of diphtheria. My prescription had called for two bottles, one of which was for cauterization, the other for a potion, and the druggist’s mistake must have been a confusion of labels. I know I have always remembered the fortunate presentiment which saved Madame Constans from the terrible effects of the ingestion of a caustic (Flammarion, 1922, p67).

I generally try to look for a moral that can be derived from strange historical tales, but it’s not very helpful for our day to day lives in the 21st Century to observe that (1) medical treatment in 19th Century France seems like it might have been a rather dodgy affair, and (2) politics haven’t changed much.  Okay, maybe quality of medical care hasn’t changed that much either.  At any rate, the optimum strategy for avoiding a gruesome fate in either century seems to be , failing the ability to predict the future yourself, to keep a psychic handy, and even better if they are emotionally attached to you.  On the average, Western life is undeniably easier in the 21st Century than it was in the 19th, but maybe that’s why we waste our psychics on telling us if our latest relationship will work out, or that our relatives our well and truly dead (and loving it).  When the world is a little more rough and tumble, life and death can hang on your ability to dodge the cruel hand of fate.  As Emily Dickinson said, “People need hard times and oppression to develop psychic muscles”.

Reference
Flammarion, Camille, 1842-1925. Death And Its Mystery: Before Death, Proofs of the Existence of the Soul. London: T. F. Unwin, 1922.
Prince, Walter Franklin, 1863-1934. Noted Witnesses for Psychic Occurrences: Incidents And Biographical Data, With Occasional Comments. Boston, Mass.: Boston society for psychic research, 1928.

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