The Kinck family murder case in France in 1869 is often cited as being crucial to the development of tabloid journalism. The discovery of Hortense Kinck and five of her children, buried on a field on the outskirts of Paris, was an immediate and mammoth scandal. The Paris public and greater France was astounded. How could such a savage, callous murder of a bourgeois family have taken place in the prosperous Second Empire? In a society overrun with the notion of spectacle, this was an out-and-out sensation, way beyond any thrill the newly conceived Parisian department stores could muster.
As the investigation unfolded, the newspapers did all they could to sate and stoke the public’s thirst for answers to the most obvious questions – Who did it? Will he do it again? And why?
Swiftly, Monsieur Claude, the famous Paris Chief of Police, arrested a young man, Jean-Baptiste Troppmann. While the public’s questions seemed simple, Claude’s investigation was fraught, becoming more complex as more bodies were found. Under huge pressure for answers, the investigation, trial and execution took only four months. In this time Le Petit Journal and Figaro increased their sales incredibly, churning out many editions within a day. Troppmann was good business. But as the investigation proceeded towards the trail, I felt there was a change of tone, a move from reporting simple facts to the sensational, and a fearful warning that this could be your family, a familiar tactic over employed by modern tabloid journalism. Indeed, the newspapers added another question – Are you and your family safe?
Through some canny use of Ancestry.com I found a distant relative of the Kinck family – Joanne Brogan. Joanne sent me a photograph of the Kinck family, a formal studio portrait.Photography was still a tedious medium, involving large cameras and long exposure times. The fact there are family photographs speaks of the wealth and prosperity of the Kinck family and the heights to which they could rise within the Second Empire. The back of the photograph also suggests it may have been a stereoscopic image, two images viewed through a device to make it 3D. Yet a greater, more expensive sensation. Le plus ça change! I estimate, from the age of the only female child, the image was taken about eighteen months before the murders.
But at this time, the reprinting of photographs in newspapers wasn’t possible. To add a visual element to the spectacle, artists were employed to depict the pertinent scenes of the crime as they unfolded. I found these drawings delightful, their own set of visual aesthetics. From other areas of research, some were very accurate, rendering various players in the drama as recognisable. But others were less so. Some were more elaborate, in colour with high degrees of details. And others were a step better than a cartoon.
But what they do show clearly is the heights to which the hysteria around the case was driven. And there’s good reason to think the emperor, Napoleon III, would have smiled on such folly. During the case, negative forces gathered around him – his age and health, his popularity ratings declined, the easy credit with which he’d refurbished the country began to dry, border skirmishes broke to new mutiny. To some degree, the newspaper’s outrage of the Troppmann case distracted the public’s attention from these far greater woes. He even stoked the drama. His wife, Empress Eugénie, adopted a poor relation of the Kinck family as they shared the same birthday. Exactly a year after Hortense Kinck’s body was found, Prussia took control of Paris.
Did it really matter if the truth was tempered in the name of divertimento and good profit? Once established, the link between this template of reporting and increased newspapers sales was unstoppable.