During the presidency of Nicolas Fabre Geffrard (Geffrard succeeded Emperor Faustin Soulouque), many tried to unseat him through assassination attempts and takeovers. One attempt would forever stay in his mind as long as he lived.
In July of 1859, Guerrier Prophète, a man Geffrard had made a general in his government, gathered opponents of the president from different cities all over Haiti, starting with St. Marc to Cap Haitian and Gonaives, and decided that they were going to get rid of him through an intricate plot.
Somehow President Nicolas Fabre Geffrard found out about the plot, and held a meeting with Guerrier Prophète. The meeting concluded with Geffrard giving the general the choice of imprisonment or exile. Prophète wisely chose exile. Meanwhile, Prophète’s other accomplices who remained in Haiti were planning to carry out their nefarious plans, scheduled to take place in a few more months into the year 1859.
Geffrard had a habit at this point of going to see his daughter Cora Geffrard Manville Blanfort in Rue des Casernes, a street not too far from the Palais National (Haiti’s National Palace). She was a newlywed, and he would walk from the Palace, without his bodyguards, to spent the evenings with her, before going home for the night.
The conspirators knew that this was basically Geffrard’s routine, and so planned their ambush behind a wall across the street from where Cora was living, waiting for the president to arrive so that they could murder him on the spot. But what they didn’t know was that afternoon in September 1859, he had called a meeting with his Cabinet members to apprehend the remaining conspirators.
The murderers surrounded the house where Cora sat reading by the lamp, and as they waited for the sight of Geffrard, whose meeting had delayed his arrival, they decided that they would murder Cora to speed up the President’s arrival. Edward Bean Underhill who visited Haiti shortly after the incident, and gathered accounts concerning it, would write in his book The West Indies: their Social and Religious Condition:
Timoleon Sanon was the individual selected to perpetrate it [Salomon Zamor furnished the weapon]. Armed with a heavy gun of large caliber accompanied by five others, lest he should fail, he cautiously crept under the gallery of the house, towards the dining-room, situated on the ground-floor, and gently raised a bar of the open jalousies. The victim was sitting at a table, reading. A few moments served to point the murderous weapon. Threatened with a poniard in his side by one of his companions if shrank from the crime, Sanon drew the trigger. The frightful discharge shattered the poor victim’s head, and broke her left arm. She fell dead from her seat, eleven slugs of lead were extracted from the wainscot of the room, besides those found in the body of the slaughtered girl.
The conspirators stood trial (among them 4 brothers from a certain Chochottes family,and a Mr. Caminer); Attorney Camille Nau was the leading lawyer for the defense, while Attorney Lavaud and Jeanty represented the prosecution (how convenient that Geffrard had just restored Haiti’s National Law School). Bea Greenville offered this expert from Nau’s prosecution argument:
Oh human wickedness! How hideous thou art. Foreven then, when the President of Hayti, that he might not shed the blood of a man whom he thought his friend, had consented to the embarkation of the General Prophète, this man and his accomplices smote him in his tenderest affections by the assassination of his child. Neither clemency, nor magnanimity, nor remorse, could arrest these furious men. See how the President, to the last, remains superior to his enemies. When he had in his power the man who planned the crime; when mothers, the friends of order, and the entire army, moved with a just indignation, protested against the embarkation of Greneral Prophète, in order that justice might take its course, the President would not forfeit his word. He permitted the monster to depart, forcing into silence the legitimate emotions of his paternal heart. Gentlemen, the blood of Madame Blanfort cries aloud for vengeance; not on her own account, for she can forgive; but for the sake of the republic, of society itself, of the strangers from all nations who visit us, and who depend on us for perfect security during their stay in our country.
And the defense:
Shade of Cora Geffrard, attend us there. Thou angel now in heaven, let not innocent victims be sacrificed for thee! Say to these judges, that in the band of thine assassins are men of noble heart, aspiring to the future, and whose past life protests against the enormity of the crime. Tell us what faith to put in the confessions of thy murderer. Thou monster! for a moment escaped from hell, what hast thou done with thy soul? Dost thou not know the lot which awaits thee? The punishment of man will be nothing to the punishment of God. In thy fall thou dost drag with thee a large number of thy fellow citizens. If they are innocent, they will plead against thee at the tribunal of God; they plead against thee before the tribunal of man. But God will be severe and just. Canst thou dream there?
And the outcome of the trial—after the examination and cross-examination of 50 witnesses—as decided by 6 judges that included future president Jean-Nicolas Nissage Saget: 12 were acquitted based on a lack of evidence against them, 3 received jail sentences, and 17 were convicted. This time Geffrard did not give anyone the choice of imprisonment or exile. He signed a warrant after the three-day trial to have the culprits publicly executed. Bean Greenville, who witnessed the convicted conspirators’ families retrieving their executed bodies on the grounds of the cemetery, concluded:
It was a touching sight, as morning after morning, during my brief stay in Port-au-Prince, I watched at
early dawn the sad procession of the friends and children, to and from the quiet resting-place of the dead. To this, President Geffrard mode no opposition, although there can be no doubt that the persistency with which these visits were kept up, the way in which the grief of the survivors was ostentatiously paraded, were intended to awaken hos- tility to the ruler. But the cruelty and the needlessness of the assassination of Cora Geffrard, the absence of any justifiable political motive for the conspiracy, the clearly proved ambition, and thirst for plunder, of the leading actors in this drama of crime, effectually deprived the guilty of all sympathy. Their crime strengthened the hands of the ruler it was intended to destroy.
This has been another edition of History 101. Be sure to tune in next time devoted pupils, and in the meantime, be sure to check out the other articles in this series.