Spying and Flying in 19th-Century Paris
Every so often one encounters a case of historical kismet, thus helpfully enabling this edition of Secret Worlds to marry two long-time loves: Spying and Flying. I’ve written books about both: Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring and Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men’s Epic Duel to Rule the World (I hope you did not notice my incredibly subtle self-advertising).
In the latter, I described the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 from an aviation viewpoint. Completely cut off from the outside world by the besieging Prussians, the Parisians enterprisingly constructed dozens of free-floating hot-air balloons—patriotically pioneered by the Montgolfier brothers in 1793—signed up some valiant lads to captain them, threw in some sacks of mail, and sailed them up and out of the city as the frustrated enemy shot at them with muskets.
The balloons provided a vital morale booster at a time when the French were reduced to raiding the zoo for food, but this being Paris their chefs managed to rustle up elephant soup, kangaroo stew, roast camel, antelope terrine, wolf in deer sauce, and baked cat with rat garnish.
Rather as the Ukrainians at the beginning of the current war cleverly mocked the lumbering Russians by filming the “Ukrainian Tractor Brigade” hauling away their hapless tanks, the plucky Parisians took to christening their air force with names redolent of French genius—Lavoisier, La Liberté, Lafayette— to remind the stolid Prussians of their lack of it as they floated so gracefully overhead.
The balloons served also as an important propaganda tool. Just as the Russians vainly tried to sever Ukrainian Internet contact with other countries, the Prussians too manifestly failed to prevent the French from telling their side of the story to a sympathetic outside audience.
The first balloon, named Neptune, carried no fewer than three thousand letters relating the hardships being imposed on Parisians, which its pilot Jules Duruof lugged to the offices of the Times of London to help sway its coverage of the war.
The Flying Spy
All very interesting, but what caught my eye was an article by Tim Jenkins in the British journal, History Today, concerning a Frederick Worth, a wine merchant who had moved to Paris to protect his firm’s assets there when the Prussians advanced on the capital. Having secured whatever he needed to secure, Worth found himself trapped there and eventually paid £100 to an aeronaut (the then-current term for balloonists) to fly him out.
A letter written by Worth that was printed in The Times relates what happened:
On Thursday, October 27, I left Paris by balloon in company with three others. We left with a north-west wind, which would have carried us into Belgium, but the wind changing to direct east, we were carried onto the Prussian lines. We left Paris at two o’clock in the afternoon, and as at half-past four it was almost dark, we were obliged to come down to earth.
Just as we emerged from the clouds, at about 250 yards from the ground, we were welcomed by a shower of Prussian bullets, some of which pierced the balloon, and in order to avoid being hit we were obliged to come down at a tremendous pace. When we touched the ground there was of course a terrible shock. I fortunately did not lose my presence of mind, and held on by the cords, so that I did not feel it so much in jumping from the balloon. However, I was thrown some thirty feet into the air and fell all of a heap without being hurt in the least.
He was taken prisoner and taken to Cologne. The Prussians considered him a spy who had been reconnaissancing their lines by air (the recent Civil War in America had popularized balloon-based military intelligence) and he was to be tried for espionage in Prussia. Hearing of this offense against the honor of a British subject, Her Majesty’s Government in London swung into action and claimed Worth had merely been trying to escape a besieged city because he wished to return home to comfort his ailing mother.
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The Prussians would otherwise have been willing to free Worth to make a diplomatic headache go away, but for one piece of evidence: A letter from Worth to Henry Littlewood, another London wine merchant, who had been leading the crusade to liberate his friend. It had been written shortly before October 27, the day of Worth’s escape, and had requested Littlewood to purchase weapons on behalf of the French government.
The production of that blockbuster letter evaporated a lot of goodwill towards him in Britain. Was Worth as innocent as he claimed? If not a spy, then perhaps he was an armsdealer breaching British neutrality in the current war. Depending on what exactly Worth had been doing, running guns was a legal gray area, but at the same time some said there was no reason for London to exert itself on his behalf. (On neutrality and arms at the time, see my forthcoming book, The Lion and the Fox (December 2022), which focuses on Confederate efforts to purchase warships in Britain during the Civil War.)
Anyway, the Law Journal sternly opined that:
British subject does not carry the laws of his country about with him. He is under the law of the country in which he resides. If he is in a besieged city, and still more if he deliberately remains in a city that is about to be besieged, he is under the laws of war, and has no right to complain if he is arrested when endeavouring to escape. The British Government cannot protect British subjects against the consequences of their own actions.
The Law Journal may have been too harsh on poor Worth. That last sentence, in particular, comes across as overly broad: Governments protect their citizens in foreign countries against the consequences of even their own guilty actions every day—think of all those times when an embassy official has persuaded the local constabulary from pressing charges against some drunk tourist—let alone when they have not yet been proven guilty, as in Worth’s case. The Law Journal’s abandonment of Worth indicates more the anger now being leveled at him than anything else.
In the end, Worth was saved from dire punishment by the fall of Paris at the end of January 1871. Victors can afford to be charitable, after all. On February 16, he was acquitted by a military court and released.
He was free, but his business was ruined and he declared bankruptcy a few months later.
A sad but intriguing story that leaves several questions hanging. How had the fateful letter fallen into Prussian hands? I’d guess that since several balloons had crashed or been lost in the east it had been found among the mail sacks being carried. It’s possible, too, that it was a forgery, though it seems unlikely the Prussians would have bothered, given the high risk of being exposed as counterfeiters for the low stakes involved.
I think we should assume it was real and that Worth had been trying his hand at making a quick buck, only to find he had left his departure too late and that, more unfortunately still, international armsdealing in a war zone was (and is) a tricky business best left to less amateurish participants.
Further Reading: T. Jenkins, “A Worthy Cause?”, History Today, May 2022, pp. 52-57; Letter, Lord Augustus Loftus to Earl Granville, January 28, 1871, from Berlin embassy to the Foreign Office, printed in M. Mösslang and H. Whatmore (eds.), British Envoys to the Kaiserreich, 1871-1897 (Cambridge: Royal Historical Society/Cambridge University Press, 2016), Camden Fifth Series, pp. 29-30; Anon., “Mr. Worth’s Case,” Solicitors’ Journal & Reporter, March 11, 1871, pp. 347-49.