Anarchists, Aliens and Detectives

Judy Greenway recalls a colourful trial involving an Italian anarchist and a policeman in the year of the Aliens Act.

In late October 1905, with revolution underway in Russia, British newspaper warnings about ‘anarchy’ abroad vied with headlines about ‘Anarchists in London’, diverting readers with the story of an  ‘extraordinary’ libel suit in the High Court.

The case was sparked by the memoirs of retired detective inspector John Sweeney, a former specialist in anarchist surveillance. In his book At Scotland Yard (1904), he alleged that Luigi Parmeggiani, a supposedly respectable London antiques dealer, was in fact a dangerous Italian anarchist selling dubious goods. Parmeggiani sued.

Reported in the press as a cross between farce and melodrama, Parmeggiani vs Sweeney had all the ingredients of a popular novel. There was even a glimpse of royalty – a visit to Parmeggiani’s gallery by Queen Victoria’s daughter, Empress Frederick of Germany, recounted by Sweeney so as to recall the Empress of Austria’s recent assassination by a knife-wielding Italian anarchist. A different account came from Sir Charles Richardson, Empress Frederick’s escort on that visit. He had formerly purchased from Parmeggiani a sword once belonging to Edward III, and now (perhaps anxious about his investment) testified to the dealer’s high reputation.

Born into a poor family, Parmeggiani claimed to have  wandered Europe as a jewellery salesman before meeting Victor Marcy, an antique dealer with premises in Paris and London. Marcy took him on as a cleaner, and through diligent study Parmeggiani became an expert on art and antiquities. On his employer’s death, he went into partnership with Marcy’s widow, calling himself ‘Louis Marcy’. The business had prospered but was now threatened with ruin by this ‘cloud of suspicion’. He insisted he was not an anarchist.

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