French writer Emile Zola had an unusual death. He died one night in 1902 when the bedroom chimney in his Paris apartment stopped working.
Here’s how The New York Times reported it the next day, in a story titled “Emile Zola Dead From Asphyxiation”:
M. and Mme. Zola returned to their Paris home from their country house, at Médan, yesterday. Owing to a sudden spell of cold weather they ordered that the heating stove in their bedroom be lighted. The stove burned badly and M. Zola was, it is believed, asphyxiated by fumes from the fire. The pipes of the stove are said to have been out of order. To the Magistrate Mme. Zola explained that she awoke early this morning with a splitting headache. She awakened her husband and asked him to open a window. She saw him rise and attempt to move toward a window, but he staggered and fell to the floor unconscious. Mme. Zola fainted at the same moment, and was, therefore, unable to give the alarm…
The servants of the Zola household, not hearing any movement from their master’s apartment this morning, entered the bedroom at 9:30 o’clock, and found Mme. Zola lying on the bed inanimate. M. Zola was lying half out of bed, with his head and shoulders on the floor and his legs on the bed.
His wife survived, but Zola was dead.
This was the night of September 28 and the morning of September 29th. Accordingly, some sources list his date of death as the 28th and others list the 29th. Mme. Zola’s survival — plus her story of awakening early in the morning and rousing Zola — have convinced us to use the 29th as his date of death in our Zola profile.
His death was controversial in another way: At first there were suggestions of suicide or accidental poisoning by drugs. The asphyxiation cause was soon firmly established, but by then some had begun to believe that Zola had been murdered “by right-wing extremists who, hating him for defending [Alfred] Dreyfus, stopped up his chimney.”
Historians seem to be finding this theory more plausible as time goes on. Years after Zola’s death, a man named Henri (or Henri-Charles) Buronfosse is said to have confessed to a friend that he and other workers stopped up Zola’s chimney while working on a nearby apartment, then removed the blockage after Zola’s death.
Hugh McLeave’s 2001 biography A Moment of Truth: The Life of Zola, for instance, explores this in some detail in the end notes. Or see this 2002 article from Lira, in the original French or roughly translated to English.
Going back a few years, the 1995 biography Zola: A Life, by Frederick Brown, has excellent details, especially on the inquest which was held specifically because of rumors of foul play. (In an attempt to recreate the incident, two guinea pigs were locked up in the same bedroom overnight and a coal fire again lighted in the stove. They were fine.) In the end, the coroner’s report was accidental death. Brown comments:
There matters rested for more than half a century, until in 1953 the newspaper Libération received from one of its elderly subscriers named M Hacquin a letter stating that he knew Zola to have been murdered. The malefactor had been a friend of his, a stove fitter by trade and an anti-Dreyfusard by persuasion, who in 1927 made the following deathbed confession:
‘Hacquin, I’ll tell you how Zola died… I and my men blocked his chimney while doing repairs on the roof next door. There was a lot of coming and going and we took advantage of the hubbub to locate Zola’s chimney and stop it. We unstopped it the next day, very early. No one noticed us.’
The report caused a sensation in its day. But Brown concludes: “Still, the mystery remains a mystery, and, as Professor F.W.J. Hemmings put it, ‘it seems prudent to conclude that Zola might have had to pay with his life for his audacity in publishing J’accuse, but we shall probably never be able to say with certainty that he did die a political martyr.'”
It’s hard to remember now exactly what impact Zola’s famous essay J’Accuse had at the time, or to understand the passions of the Dreyfus affair — or indeed, to remember what it was all about. As a refresher, here’s an article from Flagpole magazine that calls Zola’s piece “The Greatest Newspaper Article in History.”