Dubois of the Police

The man in charge of preventing the conspiracy to blow up Napleon in 1800 was Louis-Nicolas Dubois, the prefect of police in Paris. He proved more successful in rounding up the suspects and those deemed suspicious. He wasn’t really a policeman as such, but he had legal training and was an effective administrator. So, as he will play such an important role in the drama, here’s a biography of the man:

Louis-Nicolas Dubois was born in Lille on 20 January 1758. Son of a lawyer, and minor landowner, he seemed destined for some kind of life in administration. Fate had a more interesting role for him up her sleeve, however. Initially he went through the normal apprenticeship for a man of the law. He went to study in Paris in 1776 and took the oath before the Grand Parlement of Paris in 1782. He worked as a prosecutor at Châtelet in the years before the revolution, forging friendships with fellow Masons, colleagues and superiors which would stand him in good stead in the turbulence to come. He was as involved in the revolution as the good for his career would allow, joining the Club des Cordeliers, and avoiding the Terror, before rising to magistrate and head of the civil tribunal of the Seine in 1795. Judged to be of little talent, but patriotic, he proved a loyal servant of the government, whatever government was in place. A former colleague, Réal, helped him up the ladder by having him appointed police commissioner for the 10th Arrondissement. The dust had hardly settled following Napoleon’s coup in November 1799 when Dubois was further elevated and passed into the central bureau of police for Paris. On 8 March 1800 he was made prefect of police, a powerful position directly responsible to the government although one of equal rank to the prefect of the Seine, Frochot, who proved a long-time rival and with whom Dubois would be in permanent conflict over jurisdiction. For now, an elated Dubois, in charge of a budget of two and a half million Francs per year, informed his fellow citizens that:

“This city is vast, its police must be efficient. I have been placed in charge of them and I shall justify the government’s choice. I ask for your advice, I shall listen to your complaints. I shall see to it that I take care of everything that hitherto has been of concern to you. Firmness, but fairness. My eye shall peer into the soul of the criminal, but my ear shall remain open to cries of innocence and even for the pleading of forgiveness.”

The Minister of Police, the slippery Fouché, had agreed to this promotion as he feared that a stronger personality might have threatened his own precarious position balancing between regimes and knowing too much about the secrets of those on the rise, and those on their way down. Dubois, a relative unknown, sounded perfect. And he proved to be hard-working and thorough, a trait only offset by greed for riches. And that was hardly an impediment to an ambitious Napoleonic official. The amount of work was vast. He was responsible for policing Paris, and running its prisons (well Dubois was in charge of the personnel, Frochot was in charge of the upkeep of the buildings and of providing food); managing the lottery and the fire service; issuing passports and permits, and supervising markets, brothels, theatres and bookshops; regulating the sale of gunpowder and issuing patents; monitoring the activities of emigres and priests, tracking down deserters and tramps; ensuring that the city was clean and safe, and overseeing public holidays; and presiding over an army of inspectors, policemen, spies and informers.

One of his key tasks was to draw up daily reports to Napoleon. These were unambiguous and apt, as well as being enormously influential, and, for this, as well as the contrast he posed to that old intriguer at the Quai Voltaire, Fouché, he won the confidence of the First Consul. But his biggest test came early on in his career when he was required to run the investigation into who was behind the conspiracy to kill Napoleon using an exploding wagon. This Infernal Machine had detonated just after Napoleon had driven past in a carriage on his way to the opera on Christmas Eve 1800. The plot, the investigation, and the ensuing series of arrests and executions are incredibly dramatic but, to cut to the chase, Dubois emerged unscathed. Indeed, his reputation was enhanced by his willingness to prosecute anyone who had fallen foul of the government, and doubts over the details of his police work, and his failure to prevent the outrage, soon faded.

Dubois’ rewards, or takings, for his loyal service would be immense. Created councillor of state, then count of the empire, he would divide his time between policing and acting as squire of the château de Vitry-sur-Seine, to the south of Paris, living a life of comfortable splendour whilst counting his millions.

He fell a little out of favour in 1810, but was kept as busy as any former judge by heading various government commissions and inquiries all until Napoleon fell in 1814. He then promptly switched sides, only to declare loyalty to Napoleon during the Hundred Days. Such gymnastics evidently wore him, and his professed patrons, out and he settled down to rule over Vitry-sur-Seine as mayor. He died 47 years after the explosion of the Infernal Machine, perhaps the biggest test of his career.