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Recent research into police files has revealed that the bombings were instigated by Auguste Coulon, an agent provocateur of Special Branch Inspector William Melville, who would go on to become an early official of what became MI5.
On 6 January 1892, Joe Deakin, an anarchist from Walsall, was arrested on Tottenham Court Road, London on his way to the Autonomie Club. He was remanded in custody at Great Marlborough Street Magistrates Court the next day on a charge of manufacturing bombs. Following this court appearance, Inspector Melville went to Walsall and that evening arrested Victor Cails, a Frenchman, and Fred Charles at the Socialist Club in Goodall Street, Walsall. Later William Ditchfield and John Westley were arrested in Walsall and Jean Battola, an Italian, was arrested in London. Deakin and Battola were taken to Walsall to stand trial. They were all jointly charged with bomb making. At their first appearance at the Walsall police court, the prosecution asked for a week's remand on the grounds that "[t]he authorities both in Walsall and London had received very important information with reference to what he might call a widespread conspiracy throughout the country."
The evidence presented was as follows:
- In Charles' possession was plans for a bomb with instructions in French, a model of a bolt allegedly to fit the top of the bomb and a French manifesto written by Cails called The Means of Emancipation which included: '"Let us occupy ourselves with chemistry, and let us manufacture promptly bombs, dynamite and other explosive matters much more efficacious than guns and barricades to bring about the destruction of the actual state of things, and above all, to spare the precious blood of our comrades. Courage, companions! Long Live Anarchy! Walsall, 1 September 1891."'
- In Cails' possession was found a fuse and several French Anarchist publications, including issue number 7 of L'International, which gave instructions on making bombs and how to use them for the demolition of public buildings.
- At Ditchfield's workshop 'a plaster cast of a bomb similar to the sketch produced' was found and at his home a bolt 'for the head of one of the missiles'. In the basement of the Socialist Club there was 'a quantity of clay mixed with hair, evidently for moulding purposes'.
All six were remanded in custody, although no explosives were actually found and there was no evidence as regards the other three defendants.
Subsequent arrests and confessions
Under the false belief that Charles was a police spy, Deakin made a confession. However, his confession also implicated Auguste Coulon, a French anarchist, who worked as an assistant in the school set up by Louise Michel for the education of the children of the foreign socialists in London. He was also involved in trying to organise chemistry classes and translating and circulating information about bomb making. The police also arrested a Swiss inventor called Cavargna, who had invented some small explosive shells for exterminating rabbits in Australia. He was released after two days. A further person named McCormack, who had been recently expelled from the socialist club in Walsall, offered his services to the police, who soon decided he was unreliable. He went to Birmingham where he sold his story to the newspaper and got drunk on the proceeds. Arrested for being drunk and disorderly, he promptly declared in court next day that he had been employed by the police to fabricate evidence against the Walsall Anarchists. Charles Mowbray and David Nicholl were soon also arrested on conspiracy charges.
Following his release, Nicholl was raising money for the Walsall anarchists when, by chance, Coulon's brother let slip that Coulon himself was a police agent. The defence brought up the situation at the police court and gave Coulon's address asking why he had not been arrested as well. After Nicholl had set up an anarchist defence fund, Edward Carpenter set up one which raised money in socialist circles. Their different political outlook was especially noticeable as regards to what extent they felt the whole trial was a case of police provocation.
Atmosphere of the trial and conviction
The case aroused media attention, particularly around two texts: the Means of Emancipation and The Anarchist Feast at The Opera – the latter was a detailed account of how to cause the maximum amount of carnage in an opera house by rupturing the gas supply and leaving incendiary devices in the seats, while the miscreant could make their escape. Following three bombings in Paris, the correspondent for The Times made the connection: 'Anarchists should not be regarded as members of a political party, and it should not be possible for an Anarchist to hurry away from Paris to find an asylum in Brussels, in Geneva or in London.' Ravachol was arrested for two of these bombings, and promptly made a confession.
The climate of the trial was not conducive to a sober consideration of the facts – The Anarchist Feast at The Opera was read out as if it were the views of the defendants. The defense did not argue that it was a police plot. Charles, Cails and Battola were found guilty; Deakin guilty but with a recommendation for mercy; and Westley and Ditchfield not guilty. Those found guilty were allowed to make a statement, whereupon the first three stated they thought it was a police plot. Charles, Battola and Cails were given ten years each, and Deakin five. Although the judge denied he was punishing them for being anarchists, The Times was more to the point:
- The offence with which the prisoners were charged is one of the most dastardly and wicked which it is possible to conceive. Like treason it is aimed at the very heart of the State, but it is not designed to destroy the existing Government alone. It strikes at all Governments, and behind all Governments it strikes at those elementary social rights for the defence of which all forms and methods of civil rules exist. The crime of which the Walsall prisoners have been found guilty was no isolated act ( ... ) Hate, envy, the lust of plunder, and the lust of bloodshed are stamped on every line of the Anarchist literature read at Walsall and on every word of the confessions made by RAVACHOL.
'Alas! Alas! Ten years for Charles, it is too bad. An evil conscience makes them cowards.' wrote Edward Carpenter following the trial.