“Le Caron turned to writing his memoirs, while continuing to smoke some sixteen cigars a day and nurturing his carefully waxed dark mustache.” –K.R.M. Short
As well as being the subject of one of the better random quotes ever scrawled in my notebook, Henri Le Caron also crops up as a rather unlikely villain in Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back, a baseball time travel novel strange enough that even though I finished reading it several weeks ago, I’m still processing. (Fun look at the early history of baseball, though.)
Le Caron was the pseudonym for English spy Thomas Beach, who had infiltrated the Clan-na-Gael, the leading Fenian organization in the United States. He blew his cover to testify against Irish Parliamentary Party leader Charles Stewart Parnell at the Special Commission on Parnellism and Crime held in 1888-1889.
Born in Colchester in 1841, Beach had posed as a Frenchman and enlisted in the Union army during the American Civil War in 1861. As he settled in Nashville at the end of the war with his wife, Le Caron gained inside information about Irish-American plots against Canada from an army colleague, John O’Neill. Le Caron wrote of these plots to his father, who put him in touch with the British Home Office. On a trip to England in 1867, he was recruited as a secret agent reporting to Robert Anderson, who worked as a Home Office advisor on Irish political crime.
Le Caron moved his family to Illinois and joined a Fenian circle there, still posing as a Frenchman with particular hatred of the English. He quickly rose up in the organizational ranks, both helping to organize and betraying the attempted Fenian invasion of Canada in 1870. Le Caron became an associate of John Devoy, Patrick Egan, Alexander Sullivan, and other Irish-American leaders, and met with Parnell twice.
As the recipient of the spy’s reports, Anderson used Le Caron’s information to contribute to a series of articles for the Times on “Parnellism and Crime.” This series, published in March and April 1887, attempted to link Parnell and the parliamentary nationalist movement to rural violence and dynamiters. It included forged letters purported to have been written by Parnell commending the Phoenix Park murders.
Le Caron had maintained his cover for over twenty years when he shocked nationalists with testimony at the Special Commission hearings. This led to threats against his own life. Le Caron wrote in his autobiography that he held “undisguised loathing” for “the blatant loud-voiced agitator, always bellowing forth his patriotic principles, while secretly filling his pockets with the bribe or consequences of his theft,” taking advantage of “the poor deluded Irish in the States.” He portrayed the Irish Parliamentary Party as swindlers and tricksters. In the end, however, his evidence did not have a significant impact on the case against Parnell at the Special Commission.
Parnell was cleared of the charges made against him after Richard Pigott admitted to forging the letters that appeared in the Times. Pigott himself committed suicide. As for Le Caron, as Short so colorfully describes, he went on to lead a reasonably calm life with his family (and mustache) in South Kensington until his death in 1894.
Le Caron, Henri. Twenty-Five Years in the Secret Service. London: William Heinemann, 1892.
Short, K.R.M. “Henri Le Caron.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Anderson, Robert. Sidelights on the Home Rule Movement. London: John Murray, 1906.
Cole, J.A. Prince of Spies: Henri Le Caron. London: Faber and Faber, 1984.
Lyons, F.S.L. “‘Parnellism and Crime,’ 1887-90.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Ser., no. 24 (1974).
Whelehan, Niall. The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.