Normandy Research Foundation

Boston, MA

© 2019 Normandy Research Foundation

The Merchant of Death

October 17, 2016


Le Marchand de la Mort Est Mort
(The Merchant of Death is Dead)

In 1888, eight Noble Prize winners were born. They would go on to earn one of the world’s most coveted honors, an award that would not even be created for thirteen more years. 


In 1888, in London a new and strange play opened based on the character created by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.


In 1888, twenty nine year old Kaiser Wilhelm II, oldest grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria, became Germany’s new Monarch, and the man some believe most responsible for starting World War I.


In 1888, it was the Gilded Age in America, a time when the rich got much richer. Incumbent President Grover Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote to Benjamin Harrison, who became the 23rd U.S. President. 


In 1888, Impressionism was all the rage in Paris. It was the age of Monet, Renoir, and Vincent van Gogh who, in 1888 famously cut off part of his left ear.


In 1888, on a pleasant April morning in France, one of the world’s richest men was sitting down to breakfast. Alfred was not been born wealthy; he was a rarified man who spoke many languages, including the language of science. A well-educated man, he earned his wealth by holding hundreds of patents, and owning scores of factories all over the world.


Alfred was a private man, and as he sat down to his breakfast he was accompanied only by his grief.  A well-known introvert, he sat silent and composed, mourning the unexpected death of his older brother Ludwig. As devastating as the loss of his older brother was, it was compounded by the fact that they had spent their last years estranged. Their disagreements seemed petty now, arising from arguments having origins in money. This had extracted life’s most valuable commodity from each of them – time. He did not know life could hurt so much.


 In earlier days they had become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. Oil in Russia was the perfect catalyst for the combination of their skills. They were chemists, engineers, inventors and innovators and they applied all their talents to the burgeoning, and highly profitable19th century oil industry.  They became so rich and famous they were labeled the Russian Rockefellers. 


Sitting alone in his Paris mansion, surrounded by wealth and opulence that included an indoor garden, Alfred was about to receive a shock that would influence him and world history more than the untimely death of his brother.  Alfred picked up one of his many Paris newspapers and was horrified. The headline blazoned across the French newspaper announced, "Le Marchand de la Mort est Mort" [The Merchant of Death is Dead]. The article further vilified his legacy, damming his inventions and the inventor, “… he became rich by finding more ways to kill people faster than ever before…”  In stunned silence Alfred sat reading his own obituary. The newspaper had confused the brothers.


Alfred’s world had collapsed. His grief for his brother disappeared, replaced by the shock of a revelation that filled him with disbelief. Alfred sat mute, and began to draw the accurate and horrifying conclusions about his life. 


He remembered he was an industrialists, born of an industrialist family that had made much money on oil, chemicals, inventions, and most importantly, innovations in weapons. He and his family used their genius for very deadly results - they were the men, who helped the men, that killed, maimed, and destroyed as much of mankind as possible. But his world was a world without conscience, insulated by the wealth he built, wealth exchanged for the blood and deaths of thousands - casualties from his innovative weapons of war.  


Alfred’s life would never be the same. The money and fame had turned him into a man he did not recognize. Had he become the sinister Edward Hyde who fancied himself sitting at the splendid breakfast table of the benevolent Dr. Henry Jekyll?


Alfred for all of his culture, sophistications, and great wealth could not hide from who he had become - The Merchant of Death.  But given enough time, he could and would change how the world would remember him. The newspapers claimed The Merchant of Death was dead, so Alfred began to plan his resurrection. He was free to write the script for his alter ego, like the chilling story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Alfred’s evil Mr. Hyde, The Merchant of Death would be buried, and the world would remember his created myth, Dr. Jekyll. This inspired perhaps by the play which opened, in 1888. 


Decades before he was the Merchant of Death, Alfred was a young man working at his father Immanuel’s side. Alfred was one of four surviving sons born to Immanuel, a Swedish engineer and inventor.  Alfred and all his brothers would work with their creative and imaginative father until each found his own fame, fortune or tragedy.
Immanuel traveled from Sweden to St. Petersburg in Russia. Tsarist Russia was at war on the Crimean Peninsula with the allied nations of Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. A small strip of land along the Black Sea, the Crimean region was an area where empires, countries, and religions had fought for centuries.  Russia’s Tsar Nicolas I was at war, and would need new weapons and technologies to defeat the superior enemy forces. 

The Crimean War was fought between, 1853-1856. It was a foreshadowing of the war that would engulf Europe and the world in just sixty short years - World War I. The Crimean War was a mixture of what was and what was to come. Its participants were immortalized in a storied and tragic poem. 


Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Charge of The Light Brigade, illustrates with few words the stunningly brave charge of British Cavalry into Russian guns. Horse mounted sword wielding soldiers had been around since the Greeks and Romans, and here at the Crimea it became evident that they were a relic. During the 19th century weapons had become more modern, capable of rapid fire, creating unimagined killing fields. The British cavalry charged into the Russian artillery, the horror apparent in Tennyson’s endearing words: 


“…Into the jaws of Death
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred…”


A manmade hell created by men like Immanuel and his sons. This was just the beginning as warfare was rapidly and impersonally evolving. The resulting carnage was how Immanuel and his sons exchanged blood into gold.


This is the world Immanuel entered. This was the war, the last war of Russia’s Tsar Nicolas I. A killing ground where men blinded by country, empire, and religion intersected with technology, colliding in orgies of violence, destruction, and death. Immanuel and his sons soon discovered that their hard work and inventiveness could be applied to making the materials those blinded men used to kill each other, and in the process they would make themselves rich. 


Immanuel and his sons began with a company that built wagon wheels used in many applications including gun carriages for the armies of the Tsar. Continuing to serve the Tsar’s war needs, Immanuel’s company then went on to build steam engines to power the Tsar’s growing navy. The Tsar awarded him the Imperial Gold Medal in 1853, for his services to the war effort. A great honor in Tsarist Russia.


Working with his sons, Immanuel expanded his family business, eventually beginning an armaments company.  He and his sons had been developing powerful explosives that could put an end to the enemy at considerable distances. Impersonal weapons such as underwater mines that could destroy an unsuspecting ship. These were some of the products and ideas the family built and expanded upon. The Russian Navy deployed Immanuel’s underwater mines to great success during the war. 


War was good business for Immanuel and his sons. They lived in St. Petersburg, the fabulous capital city of Russia, and had grown wealthy beyond expectations. They were far from the killing fields, safe in their homes, insulated by their fortunes. But all that was about to change.


The Crimean War was not going well for the Tsar. It was a war that the Tsar and Russia could no longer afford. The last remaining neutral European powers signed a treaty, as Austria and Prussia agreed not to help the Tsar’s crumbling fortunes. Nearly the whole of Europe was now allied against Tsarist Russia, and the major Crimean City of Sevastopol was under siege and about to fall. In March of 1855 the Tsar became ill and died, and before long his war died as well. 


In January of 1856, the Russians ended their war in the Crimean. The new Tsar, Alexander II, radically cut military spending. Immanuel and his sons had to find another way to maintain their fortunes. Peace was not very profitable for Immanuel, before long he departed Russia for his native Sweden. He left the running of his Russian business to his sons, Ludwig and Robert. 


 In Sweden, Immanuel and Alfred continued the family’s work, which now concentrated on chemicals and explosives. He was experimenting with many products including gunpowder and nitroglycerin. Before long, Immanuel and his sons were in business again, dangerous business. By 1863, they developed new manufacturing processes and protected their breakthroughs with patents. 


Immanuel’s youngest son Emil joined his father and brothers in the family business. Like his older brothers, Emil was highly educated and was eager to participate in the family business. But his fate was not aligned with those of his famous brothers. 

Only out of school for a year, young Emil was just twenty years old when he joined his father’s company. Working with nitroglycerin in September of 1864, Emil and four others were killed when the workshop violently exploded.  So destructive and frightening was the explosion, that nitroglycerin was outlawed in the city limits of Stockholm. It was a devastating loss for the family patriarch; Immanuel suffered a stroke and was permanently disabled for the remainder of his life. 


Meanwhile, Ludwig and Robert who had remained in Russia, continued the family tradition of working with wagon wheels. They also began building wooden gun carriages for military use. Next, they won a contract to make rifles for the Tsar’s armies. In need of more and better quality wood, Ludwig’s brother Robert went to southern Russia in search of high quality hardwoods. Before he found wood, Robert found oil. There was little wood left in this region of Southern Russia - most of it was being used for hundreds of oil derricks. 


Robert used the money that was supposed to buy wood for guns to buy an oil refinery.  Robert and Ludwig were in the oil business, in the oil rich wilderness of Baku, Russia. In 1879 they created their own oil company, and invited their brother Alfred to join them. Alfred became an investor. 


The Russian oil industry was in its earliest days a land of opportunity and chaos. Converting a distillery to a refinery, Ludwig created the Branoble Oil Company. Ludwig expanded his operation, and hired other engineers to develop the technologies that would improve the quality and speed in the refinement of oil. And more importantly to develop other uses for oil and its by-products.


Branoble also focused on better ways to transport oil. In the 19th century, the movement of oil was by leaky pipelines or leaky wooden barrels moved by rail or barge. Branoble worked to create and improve pipelines, and to find ways to move oil by ship.

Branoble designed and built the world’s first successful steam powered oil tanker. This was a major breakthrough because the tanker was made of steel and iron, and did not leak. They named their revolutionary tanker after an ancient Persian prophet Zoroaster. The name is very revealing, for the prophet spoke of the responsibility we have for our own actions. Responsibility was something that would haunt Ludwig and Alfred. But Ludwig unlike Alfred would master his responsibilities. 


 Branoble was filling nearly 50% of the world’s oil demands through its oil wells, refineries and tankers.  Oil like explosives, chemicals and armaments was very profitable for this family. But this was different, despite all this success Ludwig had changed.


Ludwig was different from many of his contemporaries, applying his business success and great wealth to philanthropy. Under Ludwig’s leadership Branoble would constantly strive to improve the working and living conditions of its employees. With his growing wealth, Ludwig found a growing conscience.


Branoble donated money to local schools and hospitals. Ludwig created profit sharing at Branoble, and opened a cooperative bank for his employees. Through his company he built libraries, lecture halls and housing all for his employees, including public transportation to the refinery. He even created a large park in Baku still in use today. 

Ludwig became one of the world’s richest men, and like his unfortunate father Immanuel and brother Emil, it did not insulate him from tragedy. His wealth and fame grew as his health faded. 


In 1888, Ludwig went to Cannes, along the Riviera coast of France.  He was immersed in the warm sunshine, surrounded by long sandy beaches, shady palm trees, and a warm sparkling blue-green Mediterranean Sea. It was January and he was far away from the cold of Russia, and the stress of running one of the world’s largest oil companies. He was joined in March by Robert who quickly realized Ludwig was dying in this French paradise.


Robert informed Alfred that his brother Ludwig was in France and that he was dying. Alfred arrived in Cannes from Paris in early April. Estranged for years and with little time left, their disagreements dissolved. They reconciled at Ludwig’s deathbed. Ludwig passed away in Cannes, having found peace in life and death. Strangely, it was exchanged for the peace Alfred would never again know.


With his brother dead, Alfred reflected on his own life. He was never married and had no children. He was highly educated speaking six languages. He was a published author, and helped establish one of the world’s largest oil companies. He was a world famous scientist, innovator and inventor. He was an atheist, and a self-proclaimed pacifist, who in a deep contrast earned his fabulous wealth making weapons fire with more power. 


Alfred’s most famous invention had been inspired by the death of his younger brother Emil. He sought to make the powerful explosive nitroglycerin more stable, and therefore easier to use.  He named that new product Dynamite, after the Greek word, dynamis meaning power. Dynamite was significantly more powerful than gun powder, and easier to use. It led to the opening of new frontiers. 


Hills and mountains could be blasted away, expanding the transportation networks of developing countries. Ore locked in those hills helped produce iron and steel to build the railroads and cities. Quarries and mines were able to blow open veins of stone and cement making materials to build the roads, bridges, and tunnels to tame the countryside. 


Remarkably, Alfred held 350 patents from across the globe and established nearly ninety manufacturing factories, including some in the United States. His factories made explosives more powerful, stable, easier to handle, and available across the globe. He increased the use of those explosives, moving from peaceful activities such as blasting in mines and quarries, to wartime uses such as powerful artillery shells, and rockets. 

Alfred bought Bofors, a company that primarily produced steel in Sweden. The self-proclaimed pacifist moved the company into the production of cannons.  Under Alfred’s direction Bofors would make cannons bigger and more powerful, thus more deadly. They would continue to do so long after his death in 1896. A remarkable irony from a self-described pacifist in search of redemption, yet, and one the lasting legacies of The Merchant of Death.


When nations, religions or people go to war they still carry the inventive legacy of The Merchant of Death. Both sides in World War I and World War II used weapons produced by Bofors - just one of his armaments company. Over a century after Alfred died, his inventive life is still memorialized, as Bofors has survived into the 21st century, and is still making weapons in the long and dark shadow of Alfred’s life. 
In 1888, on the morning of April 13, Alfred had earned his title, “Le Marchand de la Mort”. The French newspapers were incorrectly informed of the death of Alfred.  After all, they would never have printed that headline for Alfred’s brother Ludwig, Founder of the Branoble Oil Company of Russia. The company Ludwig named for he and his brothers - The Nobel Brothers. 


On December 10, 1896 at age 63, Alfred Bernhard Nobel died alone in San Remo, Italy. It was in seclusion, a self-imposed exile where The Merchant of Death spent his last years. His will was executed in Paris, and many were surprised that 94% of one of the world’s greatest fortunes was bequeathed to charity and goodwill. The man labeled in his lifetime, “The Merchant of Death”, would be remembered as his alter ego, Dr. Alfred Nobel, creator of the famed Noble Prizes. 


Alfred’s personal restoration has been the distributions of his enormous wealth. He created a foundation to manage and invest his fortune after he was gone. It would meter out Alfred’s wealth as financial awards to those who, “…confer the greatest benefit on mankind.” Alfred’s vast fortune has funded the awards created in 1901 and named after him - The Nobel Prizes.


Each year the world’s eyes are fixed onto Stockholm, Sweden awaiting the announcement of the years’ prize winners. Recording the world’s very best in: medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, economics, and of course the coveted Nobel Peace Prize. The prize winners or Nobel Laureates, earn instant worldwide respect and recognition. They receive a diploma, a medal, (similar to an Olympic medal), and a large sum of money from the earnings of Nobel’s vast fortune created from armaments, explosives, chemicals, and oil. Such a rich, hypocritical and continuing irony, lost on most who seek, earn, and admire his prizes.


Alfred Nobel purchased a ticket to immortality. He would be remembered with some of the most esteemed company in world history.  Now he is linked into perpetuity with the written excellence of: Kipling, Faulkner, and Hemingway, and the scientific genius of: Einstein, Marconi, and Fermi. Remarkably, Alfred Nobel’s name accompanies the venerable, peaceful sacrifices reflected in the lives of: Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela - All winners of his coveted peace prize. 


Yet, beyond his grave Alfred Nobel has another continuing legacy; this one he cannot control, it is the legacy of The Merchant of Death.  In the 1930’s the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry were awarded to four of Nazi Germany’s Scientists. These awards were given to the German scientists after the enactment of the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935. These laws created the institutionalization of racial discrimination, and opened the door to the Holocaust. They were also awarded after the infamous, Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) in 1938. When thousands of Jews were arrested for the crime of being a Jew. Hundreds of synagogues were burned, and thousands of Jewish businesses had their windows smashed. The broken glass reflected the consuming fires of hatred, as Hitler’s Germany devolved in a continuing upheaval of frenzied, anger driven revulsion, culminating in an unparalleled racial industrial genocide.


Regardless, Nobel’s successors awarded Hitler’s scientists the coveted award in Chemistry in: 1938 - Richard Kuhn, 1939 - Adolf Friedrich Johann Butenandt, and in 1943 George De Hevesy. Incredibly, in 1944 after the Allies had landed in Normandy on D-Day, and were chasing Hitler’s soldiers back to Germany, Nobel’s committee awarded German Otto Hahn his prize for fission, the beginning of the Nuclear Age.  

Hahn had to be told he won the Nobel Prize by British soldiers, his captors, who had imprisoned him at a place called, Farm Hall in the English Countryside. He was imprisoned by the Allies, on the belief he was part of Hitler’s attempt to build a nuclear bomb. There he was imprisoned with another Nobel Prize winning German scientist, Werner von Heisenberg.


In 1932, the Nobel Prize for Physics went to German scientist, Werner von Heisenberg. Although that was one year before Hitler acquired his power in Germany, it is believed that Heisenberg was one of the leading German scientists in Hitler’s effort to build an atomic bomb. This is not The Merchant of Death’s only connection to the building of the World’s first nuclear bomb.


On July 16, 1945, at a place history calls the Trinity Site in New Mexico, the world’s first atomic explosion was detonated. The American scientist in charge, J. Robert Oppenheimer wrote after the explosion, “…we thought of Alfred Nobel and his vain hope that dynamite would put an end to wars…” But was there is another reason Oppenheimer thought of Dr. Alfred Nobel the moment the bomb detonated successfully? 


Oppenheimer ushered in the Nuclear Age working with Nobel’s igniter theory, creating a time that changed all time. Seemingly lost to history is the fact that Oppenheimer employed Nobel’s two stage explosion theory, which was developed and patented by Alfred Nobel in 1862. And it was Cordite, the more advanced example of Nobel’s dynamite that was used as the primary explosion trigger. Oppenheimer used Alfred’s patented trigger to release upon the world the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. 


Alfred’s Mr. Hyde – The Merchant of Death, can be found hiding in plain sight in the weapons of war still used today. Those very deadly devices remain part of the irremovable legacy attached to Alfred’s alter-ego Dr. Henry Jekyll, the manufactured mythos of Dr. Alfred Nobel. The man who created the famed Nobel Prizes and the man whose misreported death was accurately celebrated by Paris newspapers proclaiming in 1888, "Le Marchand de la Mort est Mort".




Brita Asbrink, The Branoble History,, retrieved December 10, 2013.

Brita Asbrink, The Nobels in Baku, Azerbaijan International, Summer 2002.

Brita Asbrink, Immanuel Noble – A Passionate Inventor,, retrieved December 9, 2013. 

Clay S. Jenkinson, The Shattering of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Dakota Sky Education,, retrieved December 10, 2013.

Donovan Webster, Aftermath, Random House: New York, 1996.

Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, 

Simon   and Schuster: New York, 2003.

Kenneth Fant, Alfred Nobel A Biography, Arcade: New York, 2006.

Michel J.H. Taylor, Missiles of the World, Charles Scribner’s Sons: 

New    York, 1980. 

Nick Collins, Nobel Prize: 10 Most Important Winners, UK Telegraph, 08 Oct 2009. 

Nobel Foundation, Excerpt from the Will of Alfred Nobel, retrieved, 2013.

Nobel Prize, Alfred Nobel - The Man Behind the Nobel Prize,  retrieved December 8, 2013.

Robert Tolf, The Russian Rockefellers: The Saga of the Nobel Family and the Russian Oil Industry, Hoover Press: Stanford CA, 1976.

Saab Group, Bofors Dynamic, www.saabgroup, retrieved December 10, 2013.


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