selling peanuts to the pope

Marthe Hanau (1890-1935) was a Frenchwoman who defrauded French financial markets in the 1920s and 1930s.

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She married, and later divorced Lazare Bloch. In 1925, she and Bloch (the two remained business partners after the divorce) founded an economic newspaper, La Gazette du Franc et des Nations. Hanau used the newspaper to dispense stock tips to financial speculators. Bloch worked for his wife as a jolly, cigar-smoking customer’s man. He described himself as “the kind of fellow who could sell peanuts to the Pope.”

French Popes found here

Hanau’s paper promoted the stocks and securities of her own partners, whose businesses were mere shells or paper companies. French banks began to investigate the non-existent companies and soon there were numerous rumors about Hanau’s shady business practices and she and Bloch were arrested.

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A preliminary trial began and Hanau protested that the court did not understand financial business, that she could return all the money, and that she should be released on bail. Comparatively few people had seen her till she appeared, aged 46, in the prisoner’s dock. She was an unusually short, round woman, with vulgar, virile gestures, a taurian head, full rouged lips and a fulminating vocabulary. When the court denied bail, she went on a hunger strike.

Taurian head found here

Three weeks later, Hanau was moved to Cochi hospital, where she was forcibly fed. When she was left alone, she made a rope out of sheets and climbed out of the window. Clad only in her chemise, stockings, slippers and a handsome sable coat, Madame Presidente hailed a taxi and returned to St. Lazare prison. Police chief Chiappe was afraid that she would die in his hands and requested that she be released on bail. She was moved to a hospice, where she still announced that she would return all the money. Not everybody believed her.

crocodile overalls and sable coat found here

She was an exceptionally intelligent woman, as the prosecution stated; so intelligent indeed that, as the judge agreed, only when she was in prison would the stupid be safe. The average provincial xenophobic Frenchman swallowed her rhetoric like a tonic. Along with their cheques, investors sent presents of homemade pates, garden flowers and knitted scarves.

scarf found here

During her trial Hanau revealed the names of all the politicians she had bribed and caused a scandal. She received a two year sentence, but the court credited her with the 15 months she had already spent in prison.

When Hanau was released later in the year, she bought Forces magazine. In April 1932 she published an article about the shady side of the financial markets — and quoted a Sûreté file about herself. Police arrested her but she refused to reveal who had leaked the file, just that it had been taken from the financial minister Flandin. She was sentenced to 3 months in prison for receiving classified information.

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