Emile Zola and Carbon Monoxide Poisoning


Emile Zola was a famous French writer of the late 19th century and perhaps one of the most honorable and courageous men of all time. He repeatedly risked his life to defend Alfred Dreyfus, an innocent man who was falsely accused by corrupt French military and government officials of spying for Germany, just because he was Jewish. In 1901 and 1902, Zola was nominated for the first and second Nobel Prizes in Literature.

His Wife and His Mistress
At age 24, Zola met Éléonore-Alexandrine Meley, a seamstress who had been forced into prostitution. At age 30, he married her and stayed with her for the rest of his life because that was the right thing to do. However, he was unable to get her pregnant, even though she had had a child before she met him. After she told him of her previous pregnancy, the honorable Zola helped her try to find the daughter she had given up because she could not afford to keep her. They found out that the child had died soon after birth.

At age 48, he hired Jeanne Rozerot, age 20, to live with them and he fell in love with her. She moved out of his house, but while still married, he had two children with Jeanne. Soon after the birth of the second child his wife discovered the affair, which caused great anger, but the marriage remained intact primarily because his wife realized that he wanted children and she was unable to give him any.

The Dreyfus Affair
In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French-Jewish artillery army officer, was accused of giving French military documents to the German Embassy. He was court-martialled, convicted of treason and sentenced to life at Devil’s Island in French Guiana. While Dreyfus was disgraced and locked in prison, evidence was presented that another officer, Ferdinand Esterhazy, was the real traitor. This would have made several French officers guilty of lying to the courts because they had fabricated all of the evidence against Dreyfus because he was Jewish. No true and honest evidence was ever presented against Dreyfus. French Major Hubert-Joseph Henry forged documents to make Dreyfus appear guilty. Other army officers stated that the documents used against Dreyfus were forged and that Dreyfus was innocent.

A French senator announced that Dreyfus was innocent and that the guilty party was Esterhazy, but the government refused this new evidence. Zola wrote his famous letter, “J’accuse” and it was published on the front page of the Paris daily newspaper, L’Aurore. His letter was to the French President, Félix Faure. Zola accused the French Army officers of obstruction of justice and antisemitism by having wrongfully convicted Alfred Dreyfus. Zola wrote the letter so that the guilty French army officers would sue him for libel. Then Zola could show all the evidence that Dreyfus was framed and had never done anything harmful to France. The Catholic church published horrible anti-Semitic editorials, and it took the church 100 years to issue an apology.

As expected, Zola was tried for libel on February, 1898 and was convicted on February 23rd. The courts withdrew his “Legion of Honor” award. Zola was sentenced to jail, but he left France for England. In 1899, the corrupt French government was deposed and he returned to France. The new government offered to pardon him if he admitted guilt, and he was pardoned in 1902, shortly before he died. In 1906, the French Supreme Court declared him innocent.

Sudden Death
Zola and his wife always slept with their doors locked and their windows shut and barred because of the many death threats and actual attempts on his life they had received for his defense of Dreyfus. On September 28, 1902, they had a coal fire in their fireplace as usual, to keep themselves warm on this cold and wet night. At three in the morning they awoke and felt sick, weak and had headaches, but they stayed in bed and tried to sleep. Later Zola got out of bed and fell to the floor. At nine o’clock in the morning, the servants forced open the bedroom doors and found Zola dead on the floor while his wife lay unconscious on the bed. Everyone suspected that he had been killed by some of the nationalists who hated him because he had defended Dreyfus. At a special inquest, his home was tested for an explanation for what had killed him. They suspected that he had died from carbon monoxide poisoning from the fireplace, but guinea pigs who were shut in the room with the fireplace lit did not die. The official inquest reports were never released to the public and the people were told that Zola died of natural causes. His funeral was attended by more than 50,000 people, including Alfred Dreyfus, government ministers, officials and delegations of miners and Freemasons. The famous writer, Anatole France, praised Zola’s great courage and soldiers saluted his casket.

In 1908, six years after his death, his body was taken to the Pantheon, a mausoleum for France’s greatest heroes. Angry nationalists tried to prevent his casket from being brought to the cemetery. The President of France attended the ceremony along with his wife, his mistress and his two children. The man he had saved, Alexander Dreyfus, was also there as well as a man who had tried to shoot Dreyfus. Zola was buried next to other great French authors, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.

What Killed Him?
In 1953, 51 years after his death, a letter to a French newspaper revealed that Zola had been killed by a chimney sweep, Henri Buronfosse, who was working on the chimney of a house next door. He was mad at Zola for his liberal views and covered the top of the chimney of Zola’s house with a thick mat that prevented the fumes from passing into the open air. He removed the chimney covering the next day, before the tests on the guinea pigs. The chimney sweep confessed his crime on his deathbed in 1927, 25 years after Zola’s death, but it was not made public until 1953.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Each year, more than 400 North Americans are killed by carbon monoxide poisoning and it causes more than 20,000 emergency room visits. Carbon monoxide is a gas that has no odor or color, so you cannot tell that it is there. It is produced when you burn something where there is a limited amount of oxygen.

If you breathe large amounts of carbon monoxide while you are sleeping, you may just never wake up as it may cause no other symptoms before it kills you. If you breathe it while you are
awake, you can suffer:
• tiredness
• flu-like symptoms
• shortness of breath
• chest pain
• confusion
• nausea, vomiting, belly pain and diarrhea
• headache
• blurred vision
• seizures
• loss of memory
• inability to walk
• passing out

How Carbon Monoxide Harms You
Your brain needs a constant supply of oxygen for you to stay alive. You breathe in oxygen and it is carried in the bloodstream by the hemoglobin in red blood cells. Unfortunately, carbon monoxide binds to hemoglobin far more forcefully than does oxygen, so when you breathe in carbon monoxide, it binds to hemoglobin and prevents oxygen from binding to hemoglobin. Then you have no way of transporting oxygen to your brain and heart, and you can die.

If you find an unconscious person in a closed room, call 911 because you are not supposed to move anyone who could possibly have broken bones, brain bleeds, or nerve damage. Open all of the doors and windows. If carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected, the emergency personnel will immediately take him into open space with lots of fresh air. Treatment is to start administering oxygen as soon as possible. Carbon monoxide is eliminated through the lungs. With air at room temperature, the half-life of carbon monoxide is 3-4 hours, while breathing in pure oxygen speeds up the half-life to 30-90 minutes.

Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
* Install battery-operated or battery back-up carbon monoxide detectors in your home and check and replace the batteries when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall.
* Have your heating system, water heater and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances checked by a qualified technician every year.
* Do not use portable chemical heaters indoors.
* If you smell an odor from any gas appliance, turn it off and call your gas company.
* When you buy gas equipment, buy only equipment carrying the seal of a national testing agency, such as Underwriters’ Laboratories.
* Make sure your gas appliances are vented properly. Horizontal vent pipes for appliances, such as a water heater, should go up slightly as they go toward outdoors. This prevents CO from leaking if the joints or pipes are not fitted tightly.
* Have any chimneys checked or cleaned every year. Anything that blocks a chimney can cause CO to build up inside your home.
* Never patch a vent pipe with tape or gum.
* Never use a gas range or oven for heating. Using a gas range or oven for heating can cause a buildup of CO inside your home, cabin, or camper.
* Never burn charcoal indoors. Burning charcoal gives off CO.
* Never use a portable gas camp stove indoors.
* Never use a gas generator inside your home, basement, or garage without adequate ventilation.
* Have a mechanic check the exhaust system of your cars or trucks every year. A small leak in the exhaust system can lead to a buildup of CO inside the car.
* Never run your car or truck inside a garage that is attached to a house, even with the garage door open. Always open the door to a detached garage to let in fresh air when you run a car or truck inside.

Emile Zola’s life and tragic death were memorialized in a film, “The Life of Emile Zola”, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1937.

Emile Zola
April 2, 1840- September 29, 1902