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Cause Célèbre

Posted by Admin on February 20, 2021

The expression cause célèbre came up in last week’s entry on Idiomation, and this got Idiomation wondering as to how old that expression is, and whether the origins of the expression really are found in France as the spelling implies. For those who may not be sure what a cause célèbre is, it’s an issue or incident responsible for widespread controversy and usually leads to heated public debates on the subject.

It is, to translate the expression word for word, a famous cause, that it is so controversial in nature that it seems everyone is talking about the cause of the controversy and what is being said about it as well as by whom.  Examples of a cause célèbre would be the ongoing Julian Assange saga, the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the Rodney King incident, and the Amanda Knox trial to name just a few.

The word cause in English is from the Latin word causa that refers to judicial process, and has to do with the reason or motive for a legal decision, or the grounds for action. It has been used in this sense since circa 1200.  When it is used in the sense of a side taken in a controversy, that dates back to circa 1300, so let’s take a look at where in the timeline cause célèbre came to be a recognized expression.

Hillary Clinton used the expression in August of 2015 when defending the situation when she was the U.S. Secretary of State and intelligence officials determined that over 300 messages on her private email account on her private email server were potentially classified, and an inspector general stated at least two of the email messages contained top secret information. When asked at a press conference about the emails and email server, she was quoted by a number of mainstream media sources as saying:

In retrospect, this didn’t turn out to be convenient at all and I regret that this has become such a cause celebre. But that does not change the facts, the facts are stubborn — what I did was legally permitted.

From March through to June 2011, the Old Vic Theatre in London (England) presented the stage play “Cause Célèbre: A Woman of Principle” to mark the centennial of its author, English author, dramatist, and screenwriter, Terence Rattigan (10 June 1911 – 30 November 1977). It wasn’t the first time the play had been performed. In 1987, a television version starring Helen Mirren as Alma Rattenbury was broadcast. Before that, a stage version co-written by Terence Rattigan and Robin Midgely was presented on 4 July 1977 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. Eighteen months earlier, it had been broadcast on BBC on 27 October 1975 as a radio play.

The story was inspired by the trial of Alma Rattenbury (the former Alma Pakenham) and her teenage lover, George Percy Stoner (19 November 1916 – 24 March 2000), who, along with Alma, murdered Alma’s third husband, Francis Mawson Rattenbury (11 October 1867 – 28 March 1935) in 1935.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  Although Francis was Alma’s third husband, Alma was Francis’ second wife.  In 1923, he left his first wife of 24 years, Florence Nunn and their two children, for 27-year-old Alma.  He publicly flaunted his affair with Alma, and because of that and other bad behaviors, he was shunned by his former clients and associates to such a degree that he had to move away from Victoria (British Columbia, Canada). 

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2:  Alma committed suicide days after being acquitted of murder and of being an accessory after the fact,  George was convicted and sentenced to death, which was commuted to life imprisonment, then released seven years into his sentence to join the army and fight in the Second World War, after which he did not return to prison.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1:  Francis Mawson Rattenbury was the architect for the British Columbia Parliament Building, the Provincial Courthouse of British Columbia, the chateau styled Empress hotel for the Canadian Pacific Railway, and the 18-room, 3-story Burns Manor for then-Senator Pat Burns in Calgary (Alberta, Canada).  He also designed a number of hotels and stations for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway which weren’t built due to the death of the company’s president, Charles Melville Hays, who, in 1912, was a passenger on the RMS Titanic. 

On 11 June 1910, The Star newspaper in Christchurch (New Zealand) carried the news story by Charles Morrimer of the London Graphic of the trial of the Korean accused of murdering Prince Ito Hirobumi (14 October 1841 – 26 October 1909).  It was reported that the accused “had every possible advantage which the law allowed; he was warmly housed, decently fed, humanely treated.” He was defended by English lawyer, John Charles Edward (J.E.) Douglas (12 September 1876 – 18 December 1915), son of Canadian born Royal Navy officer Admiral Sir Archibald Douglas (8 February 1842 – 12 March 1913), and the accused spoke with his foreign counsel through an interpreter.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Admiral Sir Archibald Douglas was born in Quebec (Canada) as the son of a physician, and died in Newnham (England), and was the first Canadian to obtain a naval cadetship. He was also the director of the first British naval mission to Japan. He rose to be a Sea Lord of the Admiralty under Goschen and Lord Selborne and, finally, Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: He was an aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria (24 May 1819 – 22 January 1901) from 1893 through to 1895.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 2: John Charles Edward (J.E.) Douglas was appointed Registrar of the British Supreme Court for China in Shanghai in August 1901, and served in that position until 1907. From 1907 to 1915, he was in private practice at the bar in Shanghai before signing up for war service.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 3: Admiral Douglas’ son, J.E. Douglas was a Major in the 10th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment. He was killed in action in Flanders on 18 December 1915 at the age of 39.

The court system was unlike the British court system as the Japanese court system had availed itself of the German Criminal Code in creating their own.

The accused, along with the accused accomplices, sat politely in the courtroom, and it was reported that the “Oriental public was much too well-behave to express either approvation or disapprovation.”

The Japanese, when they tried Prince Ito’s murdered, stood in a blaze of light — all eyes fixed on them. They knew it perfectly well. The case proved even more than a cause celebre: it proved a test case — and Japan’s modern civilization was as much on trial as any of the prisoners.

In the end, the accused murderer got the death sentence. One of the accomplices was sentenced to three years imprisonment with yard labor, and the other two accomplices received eighteen months imprisonment a piece.

The article ended with this:

He had the hero’s crown almost within his grasp, and he left the Court proudly. Has this cause celebre, so beautifully conducted, so wisely judged, ended as a score for the murderer and his misguided fellow patriots after all?

The 11 October 1900 edition of the Bismarck Tribune of Bismarck, North Dakota reported on the will of a certain Mr. Musgrove in the paper’s column, “Around The State.”

In the Musgrove will case at Grafton, Mrs. O.E. Sauter, wife of Judge Sauter of the Seventh district, is the beneficiary under the will, and Judge Sauter is named as the executor. The cause promises to become a cause celebre in Walsh county and will probably get to the supreme court [sic] before it is done. Musgrove was assistant state health officer at the time of his death. His property is said to be valued at $15,000 to $20,000.

It was on 20 March 1858 that The Hobart Town Daily Mercury newspaper reported on a criminal trial centered around the steamy story of a married man by the last name of Guillot who was carrying on not only with one young woman, but with two young women in town at the same time: The lovely Laurence Thouzery and the equally lovely Blanche de Jeufosse, daughter of the late cavalry officer, Mr. Jeufosse of the village of St. Aubin-sur-Gaillon.

Upon learning of the affair between her daughter, Blanche and Mr. Guillot, the mother convinced her gamekeeper to defend the honor of the family, which he did, and which subsequently led to Mr. Guillot’s passing. The accused and all parties that could be prosecuted in the matter were acquitted on all charges as the courts determined the killing of Mr. Guillot was justified and in accordance to law.

The title of the news article was: A New Cause Celebre.

The expression was very popular for titles of newspaper articles and books, including the 1850 book by French politician and free person of color born in Martinique, Cyrille Charles Auguste Bissette (09 July 1795 – 22 January 1858) titled, “Une Cause célèbre coloniale, Mme Marlet, de la commune de Robert, Martinique.”

In 1779, a 180 page book was published in French. with detailed footnotes, by publishers in London (England) titled, “Cause Celebre Contenant L’assassinat commis le dix-neuf de Decembre 1771, en la personne de Mademoiselle Warrimont, de la Ville de Visez, au Pays de Liege.” In English, this reads, “Cause Celebre Containing the Assassination Committed the Nineteenth of December 1771 on Miss Warrimont from the Village of Viset in Liege.”

At the end of the search, the phrase originated with the 37-volume compilation of famous legal cases in France titled, “Nouvelles Causes Célèbres” published in 1763. This was a collection of reports of well-known French court decisions from the 17th and 18th centuries, and prior to the publication of this series, Idiomation was unable to find a previously published case of the expression.

The expression — and the celebration of sensationalization as well perhaps — is therefore pegged to 1763 thanks to the title of the series.

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