If you read a biography of Alfred Nobel or of the Nobel Prize, including Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, you will likely read a dramatic story: in April of 1888 Alfred Nobel’s brother died and a newspaper mistakenly reported that Alfred had died. More then that, the paper ripped Alfred to shreds. “The Merchant of Death is Dead!” the newspaper cried, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” According to these biographies, Alfred Nobel was so distraught by this that he willed most of his vast fortune to creating the Nobel Prizes to improve his image. However, some modern biographers have started to wonder if this story is apocryphal, as no one can seem to find a copy of this important newspaper. However, no one has found proof one way or another, until now. I have found pretty conclusive evidence that Alfred Nobel did read his own premature obituary but it didn’t call him a “Merchant of Death” nor did it inspire him to create the Nobel Prizes. In fact, I found that the “Merchant of Death” version of events was basically completely made up by an unscrupulous biographer in 1959.
Let us start with the actual premature obituary. Alfred Nobel’s brother Ludwig did die in Cannes, France in April of 1888, and a newspaper did mistakenly think that Alfred had died instead. However, the newspaper printed a far more mild misstatement. The real newspaper blurb stated in full: “A man who can not very easily pass for a benefactor of humanity died yesterday in Cannes. It is Mr. Nobel, inventor of dynamite. Mr. Nobel is Swedish.” The next day the paper printed a correction that it was Alfred’s brother who had died not Alfred. We also have a letter from Alfred Nobel’s friend Madame Juliette Adam-Lambert telling Alfred how glad she was that the rumor was false. It would obviously be traumatic for anyone to tell friends and relatives that he wasn’t dead yet. However, the negativity of this mild statement seems unlikely to have devastated Nobel especially as Alfred Nobel had been known for decades as “the dynamite King” and he often had a contentious relationship with the French press. In addition, Alfred was an atheist who had complained just the previous year, “Who has time to read biographies, and who can be so naïve or fatuous as to take an interest in them?” Now it is possible that another French paper made the same mistake and that paper called Nobel a “Merchant of Death” and this disturbed him so much that he created the Nobel Prize seven years later. However, that event seems quite unlikely as we have many of Nobel’s letters to his family, friends, employees, and even his mistress and nowhere does he mention the whole “Merchant of Death” thing. Mind you, Alfred Nobel was often depressed and he expressed his fears and frustrations freely with his friends and family. For example, he wrote his mistress Sophie Hess in November of 1889, “What a sad end I am going toward, with only an old servant who asks himself the whole time if he will inherit anything from me.” Although Alfred Nobel suffered from melancholy, it was not related to his work, for Albert Nobel stated many times that he felt that dynamite and other weapons would make the world a safer place. See, Nobel thought that if he could make a truly terrible weapon it would scare countries away from war. Back in 1877, eleven years before his brother’s death, he told his friend Bertha von Suttner, “I wish I could produce a substance or a machine of such frightful efficacy for wholesale devastation that wars should thereby become altogether impossible.” He continued to express that sentiment repeatedly for the remainder of his life. To Alfred Nobel, weapons and dynamite did not make him a “merchant of death” but a “merchant of peace” and anyone who didn’t agree with him was short sited. In addition, in 1892 (4 years after his brother’s death), Alfred Nobel went to his first Peace Conferenceand became enamored of the disarmament movement and asked his secretary to look into how he could support it. When his secretary told him to start a propaganda magazine he replied, “I might as well just throw my money out the window!”. If Alfred Nobel were only interested in PR, wouldn’t he have wanted a peace paper in his name independent of how effective it was to create actual change?
So, where did the “merchant of death” story come from and why has it taken hold of our consciousness? As far as I can tell, a man named Nicholas Halasz was the first person to suggest that that Nobel created the Nobel Prize because of the premature obituary and the first person to state that the obituary called Alfred Nobel a “Merchant of Death”. In fact, Halasz began his 1959 book “Nobel: a Biography” with Alfred reading his own obituary and being “overwhelmed” to realize that he was known, “quite simply a merchant of death, and for that alone would he be remembered.” Later in the book the author repeated the story and said that the paper called Nobel, “a merchant of death who had amassed a huge fortune from the sales of more and more devastating weapons.” But where did Halasz get that idea and that provocative phrase? Halasz did not include a single reference in his book so we have to guess his motivations and sources. But the biggest clue maybe the term “Merchant of Death”. Startlingly, as far as I can find, no one used the term “Merchant of Death” about anyone for over 43 years after Ludwig Nobel’s death. The term seems to have been coined by an author of an article written in 1932 about a real character named Basil Zaharoff who was known for his ruthlessness, selling munitions to anyone who had enough money. In fact, Zaharoff was even known to encourage conflict and then sell arms to both sides! This article was poetically titled, “Zaharoff, Merchant of Death”. Two years later, another author “borrowed” that phrase for his book on arms dealers, which he titled “Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Armament Industry.” The New York Times reviewed this bookand after that the phrase “Merchant of Death” was often used to describe people who sell weapons. By the late 50s, Halasz must have heard the term “Merchant of Death” for arms dealers but had not investigated and found that the term was only 25 years old and therefore could not have been in Alfred’s premature obituary.
Why did Halasz think that an obituary inspired Albert Nobel? Well, he might have felt that it was totally illogical that an arms dealer and an inventor of dynamite would make a Peace prize. Nobel’s theory that terrible weapons would end war seemed, in the 1950s, to be so naïve as to be absurd. So, when Halasz read about Nobel reading his own obituary (probably from Madame Adam-Lambert’s letter of relief that Nobel wasn’t dead) it must have seemed like the key to the puzzle. When Halasz couldn’t find the actual obituary, in an act of journalistic malpractice, he just made one up. After Halasz’s book was published the phrase “Merchant of Death” was too delicious to not repeat. In addition, the story of a premature obituary inspiring the world’s most important prizes was a simple and satisfying origin story. Soon, many biographers were repeating this version of events. In 1991, a Swedish actor and historian named Kenne Fant wrote a biography of Alfred Nobel that is considered the gold-standard that said, “the obituary characterized Alfred as a “merchant of death” who had built a fortune by discovering new ways to “mutilate and kill.” Alfred … became so obsessed with his posthumous reputation that he rewrote his last will, bequeathing most of his fortune to a cause upon which no future obituary writer would be able to cast aspersions.” Kant’s book also doesn’t have references, so it is not clear if he got the story from Halasz or from someone who was influenced by Halasz. Although the “Merchant of Death” premature obituary origin story is satisfying, it just isn’t true.
So why did Nobel create the Nobel Prizes? There is a lot of clues that it had to due with a 20 year friendship with a woman named Bertha von Suttner. They first met each other when Bertha worked for Alfred as his secretary in 1876 and became instant close friends. However, the employment only lasted a week as Bertha quit to marry her sweetheart, even if his parents disapproved. In 1889, Bertha wrote the pacifist manifesto/novel “Throw Down Your Arms!” Alfred Nobel was entranced writing Bertha, “How long did it take you to write this marvel? You shall tell me when next I have the honor and happiness of pressing your hand – the Amazonian hand which so valiantly makes war on war.” After years of nagging, in 1892, Bertha finally convinced Alfred to attend a peace congress, which influenced him greatly. He wrote, “I should be exceedingly happy if I could assist in carrying the work of the Peace Congress forward, even if it were but a step.”
Interestingly, Nobel also believed that weapons might lead to peace telling von Suttner, “perhaps my factories will end war quicker than your congress; on the day when two army corps may mutually annihilate each other in a second, probably all civilized nations will recoil with horror and disband their troops.” In January of 1893, Alfred Nobel wrote Bertha von Suttner with an idea to create a large prize every five years for the promotion of peace.
However, Nobel continued to think that terrible weapons could end war, biology could end disease, and literature could curb prejudice and cruelty. Possibly for that reason, on November 27 of 1895, Alfred Nobel rewrote his will so that the bulk of his estate was to create a fund for yearly prizes that, “conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”. The prizes were to be in Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Literature, and “to the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congress”.
On November 10, of the following year, Alfred Nobel died. He was only 63 years old. Nineteen days before his death, Albert wrote his last letter to Bertha where he concluded, “I am enchanted to see that the peace movement is gaining ground. That is due to the civilizing of the masses, and especially to the prejudice hunters and darkness hunters, among whom you hold an exalted rank. Those are your titles of nobility.” In 1905, Bertha von Suttner was awarded the 4thNobel Peace prize, and it is pretty clear that Alfred would have been pleased to hear it.
I am not the only one who thought that Bertha inspired the Nobel Prizes. For example, the very day that Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, learned he was being awarded the first peace prize he wrote Bertha with his thanks saying, “This Prize, gracious lady, is your work; for through your instrumentality Herr Nobel became devoted to the peace movement, and at your suggestion he became its promoter.” So, please, let’s not forget the importance of Bertha von Suttner and her Amazonian hand. Also, biography and Wikipedia writers check the original sources, or a fake story may obscure the truth!
Full text of Alfred Nobel’s will. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2019. <https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/full-text-of-alfred-nobels-will-2/>
Le Figaro April 15, 1888 p. 1 & 2 Link: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k280366k/f1.item(I found the link due the fantastic research of Lars Bosteen who posted an answer on stackexchange.com: https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/43461/is-there-any-record-of-the-premature-obituary-of-alfred-nobel)
According to Nobel, Alfred. “Alfred Nobel’s House in Paris”. Nobel Media AB. Nobel Media AB, Alfred Nobel was charged with “high treason against France” in 1891 for selling Ballistite to Italy so he escaped from France to Italy.
“Merchants of Death Who Profit When Men Go to War: Three Excellent Books on the World’s Armament Industry That Are Written With Fine Humanitarianism” The New York Times Book Review, April 29, 1934 p. 3
According to dictionary.com and wikipedia.com “Merchant of Death” originated with the book “Merchants of Death” published in 1934, but of course the that author got the term from the article about Zaharoff that was written two years earlier. It seems far more accurate to say that the term gained popularity after 1934.