Magazine article History Today

Anarchists, Aliens and Detectives: Judy Greenway Recalls a Colourful Trial Involving an Italian Anarchist and a Policeman in the Year of the Aliens Act. Illustrations from the Daily Graphic, October 1905

Magazine article History Today

Anarchists, Aliens and Detectives: Judy Greenway Recalls a Colourful Trial Involving an Italian Anarchist and a Policeman in the Year of the Aliens Act. Illustrations from the Daily Graphic, October 1905

Article excerpt

In late October 1905, with revolution underway in Russia, British newspaper warnings about 'anarchy' abroad vied with headlines about 'Anarchists in London', diverting readers with the story of an 'extraordinary' libel suit in the High Court.

The case was sparked by the memoirs of retired detective inspector John Sweeney, a former specialist in anarchist surveillance. In his book At Scotland Yard (1904), he alleged that Luigi Parmeggiani, a supposedly respectable London antiques dealer, was in fact a dangerous Italian anarchist selling dubious goods. Parmeggiani sued.

Reported in the press as a cross between farce and melodrama, Parmeggiani vs Sweeney had all the ingredients of a popular novel. There was even a glimpse of royalty--a visit to Parmeggiani's gallery by Queen Victoria's daughter, Empress Frederick of Germany, recounted by Sweeney so as to recall the Empress of Austria's recent assassination by a knife-wielding Italian anarchist. A different account came from Sir Charles Richardson, Empress Frederick's escort on that visit. He had formerly purchased from Parmeggiani a sword once belonging to Edward III, and now (perhaps anxious about his investment) testified to the dealer's high reputation.

Born into a poor family, Parmeggiani claimed to have wandered Europe as a jewellery salesman before meeting Victor Marcy, an antique dealer with premises in Paris and London. Marcy took him on as a cleaner, and through diligent study Parmeggiani became an expert on art and antiquities. On his employer's death, he went into partnership with Marcy's widow, calling himself 'Louis Marcy'. The business had prospered but was now threatened with ruin by this 'cloud of suspicion'. He insisted he was not an anarchist.

Sweeney's defence was a story of violence and intrigue foiled by police vigilance. He retracted the implication of dishonesty, but reasserted that Parmeggiani was a dangerous anarchist--as well as a perjurer, a would-be assassin, and a seducer and deserter of women. Parmeggiani had evaded a thirty-year sentence in Italy for attempted murder, been imprisoned in France and, Sweeney added, was connected with bomb plots in London, including an attempt on a High Court judge. His cronies included former Paris Communard Louise Michel, the bomber Ravachol, and Bourdin, who had blown himself up in Greenwich Park. And now, exclaimed Sweeney's lawyer, this 'undesirable alien' dared to demand damages from a man who had devoted his life to protecting the public from such characters.

Parmeggiani asserted this must be a case of mistaken identity. Perhaps he had been confused with his elder brother, also called Luigi, whom he closely resembled and who had now disappeared. This tale of 'Luigi's Double' provoked derision. A number of anarchist witnesses testified that the man in court was unmistakably their ex-comrade, once a poverty-stricken bootmaker, publisher of such inflammatory anonymous leaflets as 'Vive le Vol!!!' and 'Mort aux Juges!. Over objections from Parmeggiani's counsel, extracts were read out which urged the murder of judges and jurors.

The final blow to Parmeggiani came from Marie Corronis, who testified she had lived with him for twenty years--aiding his anarchist activities, supporting him when he had no work--only to be cast off, penniless, in favour of Marcy's daughter.

Parmeggiani's attempts to claim that Corronis was only an ex-servant of immoral character roused chivalrous indignation in his former comrades and, more importantly, the judge. At this point the jury declared that they needed no more evidence. …

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