“That night the crowds in the cells were especially troublesome and aggressive; drunken soldiers shot through the cell bars to quell the trouble. Happily my father was spared an entire night in the horror of the cries and suffering that followed. He was supposed to be leader, and was removed to a separate cell in the Palais de Justice: and there placed under guard that he might be ready for examination and execution the next day.
He offered his watch to the jailer, and begged him to mail a letter to his wife in England; and to send a dispatch to his mother in Paris, asking her to come to his aid immediately. In mistake the jailer sent both messages to England, and before communications could be established, the wires had been cut.
Meanwhile, a war correspondent of the London Daily News, then on duty in Paris, recognized my father’s name and description in the evening papers, and brought Lord Russell, then British representative in Paris, to the rescue.
…Providentially, my grandmother’s attention, excited by my father’s non-appearance, was drawn to the possibility of some accident; and she appealed to the editor of Le Temps for authority and help to make a quick search. The two rescuing parties met at the prison door at two o’clock in the morning, and after conclusive proof that he was neither a spy nor a socialist, he was set at liberty.”
A story which gallops through its twists and turns like this seems as if it must have been coloured by mis-remembrances and exaggerations in the re-telling. And how reliable would Le Prince himself have been, caught up unexpectedly in the chaos and confusion of the moment and unaware of the players or the plot? He was the one who must have known the most and the least about what was happening.
And yet, looking back, the story’s elements are plausible.
The spy fever, for example, to which Le Prince fell victim had become a very real danger to those coming from abroad, and not just Germany. Parisians unable to distinguish between the languages being spoken in the city – or suspicious of any unfamiliar accent – caused the arrest of Americans, Spanish and Swedes alike. An officer in Paris at the time described how:
“A similar fate befell all those people who, either in their dress or their manner, betrayed anything unusual. Stammerers were arrested because they wanted to speak too quickly, dumb people because they did not seem to understand what was said to them. The sewer-men who emerged from the sewers were arrested because they spoke Piedmontese.”
In fact, British journalist Tommy Bowles, who was himself mistaken for a spy and arrested, reported that one of these sewer-men was “stalked by three hundred National Guards and….blown to pieces the next time he put his head out of the sewer.”
The conditions in which an impulsive arrest might be made were certainly in place.
As for the actual incident itself, the ‘disturbance at La Villette’, Le Prince’s first-hand sensations seem to be of an incident that has since passed into history as one of the first serious ‘organised’ uprisings against the Emperor’s government and a presaging of the chaos to come in Paris.