Vitriol, the old name for sulfuric acid, was used mainly in industry, to bleach textiles or strip metals. Its corrosive nature encouraged malicious spirits to use it differently, in small doses like a poison (“Vitriol in the soup!”) or on a large scale to retract a bulky corpse. But the reasons for its success were still different. From the 1870s and until the beginning of the XXe century vitriol also says “Liquid dagger”, became the weapon of choice for crimes of jealousy or amorous spite. This well-known practice is the subject of Karine Salomé’s book, which, thanks to a large examination of the judicial archives, usefully renews its history.
Thrown in the face of a hated person, vitriol caused terrible burns and indelible marks. He blinded, distorted the features, closed the nostrils, welded the eyelids. The retraction of the scars that followed froze the corrupted face in a hideous and often monstrous grin. And that was what it was all about. Mark, disfigure forever. “I wanted to take away her beauty”, said a vitrioleuse about her rival. To reveal in the eyes of all the hidden monstrosity, the unworthiness, the moral infirmity.
The vitriol epidemic which raged in France at the end of the XIXe century (from 15 to 20 trials per year) made it especially a crime of “Female revenge”. Over 80% of the perpetrators were in fact women – young girls seduced, abandoned mistresses, cheated wives – generally from the lower classes, while the victims were almost all men. Such practices should come as no surprise at a time when feminist consciousness was advancing but male impunity remained the rule. We hardly started talking about “Deceitful seduction” and paternity research, which was only effective in 1912. This is undoubtedly why, in spite of the outcry from jurists and moralists, the trials of vitriolous women frequently ended in an acquittal (more than 40 % in the Seine department).
The popularity of vitriol ebbed in this country from 1910, when elsewhere figurative expressions flourished: there was talk of style or portrait in vitriol. When the practice has resurfaced in recent years, it has come at the cost of a radical reversal of intent and gender. In India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, where there are more than 1,500 cases per year, vitriolage has become essentially male, carried out against women aspiring to independence. Like what the paths of freedom are rarely linear.
Karine Salomé Vitriol. The assaults with the help of the XIXe century to the present day Champ Vallon, 286 pp., € 21.